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Why Beijing should help mediate to end the Russia-Ukraine crisis

Analysts scoffed when the EU's Josep Borrell said 'it must be China.' But he's onto something — and Biden should take notice.

Analysis | Asia-Pacific

European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, searching for a global leader who can mediate peace between Russia and Ukraine, declared unambiguously, “it must be China.” Most analysts scoffed at this notion, dismissing Xi Jinping as a Putin enabler who would side with his fellow autocrat and strongman.

Borrell, however, was absolutely correct in thinking that Xi is the only leader who can exercise meaningful leverage over Vladimir Putin. It’s up to the U.S. and the rest of the international community to convince and even incentivize Xi to play that role. 

While not officially an ally, China is Russia’s closest partner. It is also Russia’s lifeline at a time when not only NATO and the EU, but most of the world has united against Russia’s illegal, immoral, and self-destructive invasion of Ukraine. 

So far, Xi has stood on the sidelines while the blood flows, the buildings are leveled, and the possibility of World War III grows. On March 7, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi stated that, "China is willing to continue playing a constructive role in urging peace talks and is willing when necessary to work together with the international community to launch required mediation.” 

When necessary? The necessity for action is long past as the crisis gets worse by the hour. China must act with a sense of urgency. 

China has friendly relations with both Ukraine and Russia. By 2019, it had replaced Russia as Ukraine’s biggest trading partner, importing corn, barley, iron ore, and arms, among other things. 

China has also invested heavily in Ukraine, which represents a crucial leg in its Belt and Road Initiative, having already signed nearly $3 billion worth of BRI-related construction contracts. In their first phone conversation in 2021, Zelensky told Xi that China was “Ukraine’s no. 1 trade and economic partner” and expressed hope that his country would become “a bridge to Europe for Chinese business.” 

That dream would be lost if Russia bombs Ukraine back into the Stone Age. China has also said it respects Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, effectively rejecting Putin’s claims to the contrary. And Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba implored Wang to use his influence with Russia to stop the invasion as did European leaders in a video call with Xi Jinping in February.

China’s ties to Russia are obvious. Not only has Xi said that Putin is his dearest friend in the world, China is Russia’s number one trading partner and principal ally in the struggle against U.S. global hegemony and unipolarity, a relationship that was further cemented in the two leaders’ joint statement of February 4 when Putin visited Beijing. They declared there were “no limits” to the friendship between their countries. Xi has said that he agrees with Putin about NATO encroachment and supports Russia in its effort to fashion a new global security architecture. 

Some allege that Xi knew in advance and approved Putin’s harebrained invasion, but evidence and logic suggest that he, like most of the people inside and outside Russia, was caught by surprise. Even if he did somehow share Putin’s perverse fantasy about a lightning strike and quick victory in which the Russian invaders would be welcomed as liberating the Ukrainian people from a genocidal government run by “neo-Nazis” and “drug dealers,” he must now see that the invasion has turned into a military, economic, moral, and political disaster for Putin, whose stature on the world stage, like that of fellow warmongers George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, has been irreparably and deservedly diminished and whose historical legacy lies in tatters.

The longer this war goes on, the worse this gets not only for the Ukrainian people but for Putin himself. Putin may be so deluded and surrounded by sycophants afraid to tell him the truth that he doesn’t see what a disaster this war is for Russia, but it is inconceivable that Xi doesn’t see it. It is also in China’s interest to maintain the relative peace and stability (multiple U.S. wars notwithstanding) that has allowed it to grow economically at a rate that is totally unprecedented in human history. The current economic disruptions, just as parts of the world appeared to be emerging from the worst ravages of the pandemic, will not only hurt people around the globe, especially the billions dependent on grain from Russia and Ukraine, it will badly damage the Chinese economy.

Xi can’t enjoy seeing his closest friend being isolated and demonized on the world stage and must offer Putin a way out of the current quagmire he has gotten himself into in Ukraine. Russia can prevail militarily by bludgeoning Ukraine’s cities and killing large parts of its population, but that would be the worst kind of pyrrhic victory that would leave Russia far, far weaker than when this invasion began.

Furthermore, Xi should jump at the chance to be seen as a peacemaker. While he might not have to worry about public opinion in China given the Party’s lock-hold on information and steel-like repression of dissent, his and China’s international reputation are abysmal in light of the treatment of the Uyghurs, the crackdown on Hong Kong, the unprecedented surveillance of Chinese citizens, and China’s aggressive stances toward Taiwan and its South China Sea neighbors. 

In the U.S., more than 89 percent see China as a competitor or an enemy and 67 percent have “cold feelings” toward the country, a number that has grown sharply in recent years. In Japan, Australia, South Korea, Canada, Sweden, the Netherlands, and Germany, negative views of China exceed 70 percent. Successful mediation would help transform Xi’s and China’s reputation. And while the U.S. has gone to war with one country after another in recent decades, China has not been at war since 1979. Not only would Xi be doing the greatest favor to Ukrainians and Russians by successfully mediating this crisis, he would be enhancing his own and China’s standing in the world. The image of Xi as peacemaker would be much more beneficial than that of Xi as bully or dictator. 

While China might benefit in the short-term from the Biden administration’s focus on Russia, which has distracted it from its intended intensification of competition with China, the relief it is getting will be temporary. Once this war is over, containment of China will resume. Seizing this opportunity to improve relations with the U.S. and Europe will be much more beneficial for China if it is serious about a “win-win” cooperative approach rather than the hostile competition that many in the West have been pursuing in what is often referred to as the “new cold war.”

And President Biden can help. So far, he has been good at rallying EU states and NATO members in vilifying Putin, punishing Russia, supporting refugees, and arming Ukraine. But if the U.S. goal is really to end this war with the least possible loss of innocent life and not simply to inflict maximum damage on Russia, then there are things Biden can do.

His administration’s policy, under the stewardship of Kurt Campbell, Antony Blinken, Jake Sullivan, and a small army of hawkish administration officials from the Center for a New American Security, has been hostile and confrontational toward China since Biden took power. Instead of ending Trump’s trade war, he has doubled down on it. Instead of easing tensions over Taiwan, he has exacerbated them. If the U.S. is willing to reach out to and lift sanctions on Venezuela and Iran to get them to assist with increasing available oil in order to marginalize Russia, it should be willing to offer economic concessions to China in return for its taking the lead in ending this war. If this can’t be done publicly, it should be done in backroom deals or with private assurances.

Whether it is trade policy or concessions in other contentious areas, including the U.S. backing off on provocative behavior around Taiwan, there is a lot the U.S. could offer. 

The world stands with the heroic Ukrainians who are resisting this invasion. But the reality is that this can only end in slaughter. Ukraine is not about to be invited to join NATO and Zelensky has said he is no longer interested in joining. He indicates that he is willing to accept neutrality, another key Russian demand. He seems flexible when it comes to Luhansk and Donetsk. The Ukrainians and Russians can agree to disagree about Crimea, which Russia is not relinquishing. Ukrainian security and sovereignty must be guaranteed. The basis for a solution that addresses most of the concerns of both sides should be within reach. 

With Chinese pressure on top of that already being exerted by much of the rest of the world, Putin might grasp at the opportunity to claim victory and end this insanity, while his diminished military still has a modicum of respect and his economy is not completely shattered. Hopefully, the world will have learned a lesson from this horrific episode. While the responsibility here clearly lies with Putin, who unleashed this criminal invasion, there’s plenty of blame to go around and, in the end, there are no winners in a war that could have and should have been averted before it began.

Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky  (Sergei Chuzavkov/Shutterstock); Chinese President Xi Jinping (Shutterstock/Alessia Pierdomenico) and Russian President Vladimir Putin (quetions123/shutterstock)
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