Why China needs peace in Ukraine

From trade to values, it is in Beijing's interest to be a neutral mediator

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe watch a joint military exercise by Russia and China held last year. AP
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On Monday, the Chinese and US governments had their first high-level, face-to-face discussions since the Ukraine war began. After Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi met US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan in Rome, the Americans said their six-hour talk was "substantial" while the Chinese described it as "constructive". Mr Yang issued a statement the next day, saying: "China is committed to promoting peace talks. The international community should jointly support the Russia-Ukraine peace talks to achieve substantive results, and push the situation to cool down as soon as possible."

This fits with the view of Josep Borrell, the EU's High Representative for Foreign Affairs, who has advocated for China to take a leading role in trying to forge peace. "There is no alternative," he said last week. "We can't be the mediators, that is clear. And it cannot be the US either. Who else? It has to be China."

Some may be sceptical that Beijing either could or would want to take up such a mantle. Didn't China and Russia issue a joint statement in February outlining their deep "strategic co-operation" and declared their friendship had "no limits"? Chinese leaders have said Moscow's concerns about Nato expanding eastward were legitimate, and abstained from a UN General Assembly vote demanding Russia's immediate and unconditional withdrawal of its military from Ukraine. US officials are now claiming that Moscow has asked Beijing for military and financial assistance, although both deny this.

In the long term, a weakened Russia, internationally isolated and reduced to dependency on China, is not a good outcome for Beijing

But any suggestion that China has been unequivocally backing Russia is incorrect. There has been clear disquiet all along. Just a few days ago, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said the situation in Ukraine was "grave" and that he encouraged "all efforts that are conducive to a peaceful settlement of the crisis". Earlier, Foreign Minister Wang Yi stated that "China firmly advocates respecting and safeguarding the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries". In what has come closest to a public rebuke to Russia, he added: "This equally applies to the Ukraine issue." And recently President Xi Jinping actually referred to the conflict as a "war", as opposed to the euphemistic "special operation" that Moscow prefers, and called for "maximum restraint".

We don't know how much Russian President Vladimir Putin told Mr Xi when the two met during the Beijing Winter Olympics last month. And perhaps if Mr Putin's army had met little resistance and a pro-Russian regime had swiftly and peaceably been installed in Kyiv, the Chinese authorities may have had little to say.

But massive instability in Eastern Europe, and economic devastation in both Russia and Ukraine, while swathes of the latter are reduced to rubble, are very much not in China's interests.

China is the largest trading partner of both Ukraine and Russia, and both are very important to Mr Xi's Belt and Road Initiative. Ukraine's agriculture is significant for China, while sanctions are a dire threat to the future of the China-Europe freight trains that run through Russia.

In the long term, a weakened Russia, internationally isolated and reduced to dependency on China, is not a good outcome for Beijing. Such a scenario, if China binds itself closer to Russia, would become even worse if it adversely affected the $657 billion total trade between China and the US. This is one massive reason, too often overlooked, that provides Beijing with a powerful incentive to remain, for most of the time, within the framework of the US-led "rules-based international order", even while it chafes at a system it justifiably regards as having been created by the West and which remains centred on its values and interests.

Lastly, as Wang Huiyao, president of the Centre for China and Globalisation in Beijing, recently wrote: "The longer the war lasts, the more it will reinvigorate the western alliance around the idea of a values-based confrontation between East and West, bringing the United States and the European Union into even closer alignment, while driving military budgets up around the globe. That is not good for China, which would prefer to maintain lucrative economic ties with the West and focus its resources on domestic development."

Mr Wang is an adviser to the Chinese government. For him to write an op-ed suggesting that China act as a "neutral mediator" and, ideally, manage to reach a point that both Ukraine and Russia regard as providing them with the guarantees they require, signals at least some willingness in Beijing for the country to take up such a role.

This is surely to be welcomed. But pursuing a solution that all can come to terms with will require deep behind-the-scenes negotiations, not megaphone diplomacy. China and South-East Asian countries that have had to work around considerable maritime disputes for years know this very well. Public threats by US officials such as Mr Sullivan that there will "absolutely be consequences" if China allows Russia any kind of "lifeline" from sanctions are, on the other hand, extremely unhelpful.

The world wants a resolution to this conflict as swiftly as possible. Any party that could help enable this should be encouraged, not berated.

Published: March 15, 2022, 2:00 PM