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Home News Don’t rule out China as a peacemaker in Ukraine, say Rajan Menon and Daniel R. DePetris in The Guardian.
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Don’t rule out China as a peacemaker in Ukraine, say Rajan Menon and Daniel R. DePetris in The Guardian.

Photo by Jay on Unsplash

Xi Jinping’s phone call with Volodymyr Zelenskiy was a long time coming, but it should not have come as a surprise. Beijing is on everyone’s shortlist when it comes to prospective peacemakers in Ukraine. The French president, Emmanuel Macron, is no exception. “I know I can count on you to bring back Russia to reason and everyone back to the negotiating table,” Macron told the Chinese leader during their meeting in Beijing this month.

Though Xi replied that he would call the Ukrainian president, he was in no rush. He has no illusions about the difficulty of serving as mediator in a war where Ukraine and Russia are in diametrically opposing positions. Yet China’s recent success in bringing about the normalisation of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia may entice him to help engineer a diplomatic solution to the biggest war fought in Europe since 1945. But what would that solution look like?

The Chinese have repeatedly stressed, most explicitly in the 12-point peace proposal they released on the one-year anniversary of the war, that peace in Ukraine can be restored only through negotiations that “ultimately reach a comprehensive ceasefire”. Despite conventional wisdom, Beijing was not advocating a ceasefire that would freeze the current battle lines as new borders (an arrangement that would leave large swathes of Ukrainian territory in Russian hands), but rather the beginning of a political process that would “ultimately” lead to a permanent cessation of the fighting. Moreover, the proposal said nothing about the territorial terms of a settlement and indeed stressed the need for both sides to show restraint – a formulation repeated in China’s readout of Xi’s conversation with Zelenskiy. Most importantly, it stressed the need to respect the “sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of all countries, regardless of whether they were weak or strong, rich or poor”.

The phraseology is pertinent: China is meticulous about its diplomatic language, especially in public statements. Beijing certainly wants to preserve its “no limits friendship” with Moscow, but has been careful not to adopt a stance so favourable to Russia that Ukraine would be unwilling to accept China as a mediator.

Xi doubtless realises by now that Russia cannot achieve its territorial objectives – which, at minimum, are to partition Ukraine – by winning the war militarily, and that the fighting can only end through an agreement based on mutual compromise by the two parties. As important as Russia is for Beijing, Xi also wants to protect Chinese economic interests in Ukraine over the long term: China remains Ukraine’s largest foreign trading partner and has ploughed money into major infrastructure projects, including the modernisation of Mykolaiv port and the construction of a new subway line in Kyiv.

The US and some of its European allies will probably dismiss Xi’s overtures to Zelenskiy as yet another stunt to obscure Beijing’s political and economic support for Putin during the war – for instance by importing Russian crude oil, which reached a 33-month high in March, and refusing to support UN resolutions condemning Russia’s invasion. This, in part, explains Washington’s rejection of Beijing’s 12-point plan.

Yet China’s careful moves to position itself as the broker of a diplomatic settlement in Ukraine ought not to be dismissed summarily. Xi would not have wasted time having a long conversation with Zelenskiy to no end. Nor would the Chinese have announced their readiness to send “a special representative for Eurasian affairs to Ukraine and other countries” purely as a public relations gambit. China also would not go to such lengths if it didn’t have support from Russia and Ukraine for a diplomatic initiative. Tellingly, Zelenskiy was quick to characterise his call with Xi as “meaningful” and positive, and the Russian foreign ministry commended Xi for his “readiness to strive to establish” a diplomatic track.

We should be under no illusions: while China may be interested in jump-starting a negotiating process between Kyiv and Moscow, reaching an agreement that ends the war will not happen quickly, and it may even be unattainable. Xi can read the battlefield and the positions of the combatants as well as anyone, and he understands the blunt reality that there will be more, not less, war over the short term. The Ukrainian military is in the closing stages of preparing for a major counteroffensive against Russian positions in the south and east. The US and its Nato allies continue to coordinate efforts to ensure that Kyiv possesses the weaponry – including tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, mine-clearing equipment and air defence systems – required for a successful campaign. The Russian military has spent months solidifying its defensive positions in the roughly 20% of Ukraine it controls, even as the Wagner mercenary group tries to capture Bakhmut after an eight-month slog. Neither Ukraine nor Russia will therefore rush to the bargaining table any time soon. And even if they do eventually sit down for talks, efforts at mediation could prove to be a fool’s errand given how far part Russia and Ukraine are on the minimal terms for a deal.

Still, Xi’s call with Zelenskiy, and Kyiv and Moscow’s positive reaction to it, might at least stimulate creative thinking about ways to end the war. Without that, the death and destruction will drag on indefinitely.

Rajan Menon is the director of the grand strategy programme at Defense Priorities, a professor emeritus at the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership at the City College of New York, and co-author of Conflict in Ukraine: The Unwinding of the Post-Cold War Order

Daniel R DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a syndicated foreign affairs columnist for the Chicago Tribune and Newsweek

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