Having tried and failed to set out a coherent diplomatic position in the days following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Beijing is now attempting to position itself as a potential peacemaker to end the war.
That position has not entailed acknowledging that Russia has invaded Ukraine, let alone condemning it. But as China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, told his Ukrainian counterpart Dmytro Kuleba in a call on 1 March, Beijing stood ready to support negotiations to reach a political settlement. According to the Chinese foreign ministry, Kuleba said he was willing to move forward with talks and “looked forward to China’s mediation efforts for the ceasefire”.
The president of the Beijing-based think tank Centre for China and Globalisation, Wang Huiyao, who has advised the Chinese government, told me that China was uniquely positioned to play an intermediary role because it is a well-established trading partner to both nations. “There could be six-party talks involving the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Ukraine,” said Wang, outlining the details of how he thought peace talks could unfold. “Or five-party talks between China, the US, the EU, Russia and Ukraine.”
But China is not an impartial observer. By refusing to condemn Vladimir Putin’s aggression and calling on both Russia and Ukraine to exercise restraint, as though one had not invaded the other and they were equally culpable, Beijing has already chosen a side. While several Chinese state-owned banks have reportedly limited financing for the purchase of Russian commodities, China has also lifted restrictions on Russian wheat imports, and the country’s banking regulator has said that it will not take part in international sanctions on Russia. Chinese diplomats abstained from votes at the United Nations denouncing the Russian invasion, but this was widely anticipated and in line with their stance after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.
“The Chinese have made it clear that they think Russia has legitimate security concerns. They have blamed Nato’s expansion as the cause of the problem, [and] they won’t even call it an invasion,” said Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. “At the UN Security Council, they insisted that the words ‘invasion’ and ‘aggression’ be removed from the resolution, I was told, before they would even agree to abstain. These are obviously all positions siding with Russia, so I just don’t see how anybody can suggest that China is neutral.”
Then there is the close personal friendship that China’s leader Xi Jinping has developed with Vladimir Putin – the man he has called his “best, most intimate friend” – and the joint statement the two leaders signed on 4 February, with 190,000 Russian troops massed on the border of Ukraine. Despite the obvious threat those forces posed, Putin’s history of invading his neighbours, and the warnings that US officials repeatedly gave Beijing about Russia’s intention to attack, Xi endorsed Putin’s “legitimate security concerns” over the expansion of Nato in their shared statement, and the two men declared that the friendship between their countries had “no limits”. According to the New York Times, citing a Western intelligence report, senior Chinese officials even asked their Russian counterparts not to attack Ukraine before the end of the Beijing Winter Olympics on 20 February. The invasion began four days later, on 24 February.
Either Xi did or did not know that Putin was going to invade Ukraine, yet neither scenario reflects well on the Chinese leader. If he did know, he made no attempt to stop the attack – which directly contradicts Beijing’s stated support for the principle of territorial integrity – or to evacuate the thousands of Chinese citizens in the country to safety, many of whom have been left stranded in Kyiv. And if he did not know and was misled by the Russian president, as some analysts have suggested, then the Chinese intelligence services failed spectacularly, as did Xi’s analytical judgment, and he was outwitted by his erstwhile friend.
“Nobody expected [the Russian invasion],” insisted Wang. “I don’t think Chinese policymakers or the general public expected this kind of situation. I think it’s fair to say it caught the whole world by surprise.” But Bonnie Glaser is less convinced. “I actually think that Putin was probably honest with Xi in telling him on 4 February what he thought was going to happen,” she told me, “which was that this would be a short operation, that it would be over quickly, and that what has actually transpired was not anticipated by either Putin or Xi.”
Beyond the senseless tragedy and the humanitarian catastrophe that Russia’s actions have wrought in Ukraine, they have also harmed China’s interests by uniting Western allies to a degree that neither Xi nor Putin could have predicted. But Glaser cautioned against any expectations that Beijing would now abandon Moscow, condemn the invasion, and actually reinvent itself as a peacemaker. “Even though they are discomfited by what Russia is doing,” she said, “I doubt that China is going to make a clean break with Russia.”