Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s recent remarks welcoming a possible role for Chinese mediation in the Russia–Ukraine war come as a pleasant surprise. Together with other recent positive indications, like the just-concluded two-day meeting in Vienna between U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan and China’s top diplomat Wang Yi, this could presage a major shift from the Biden administration away from confrontation with China — and if such a shift materializes, a more constructive U.S.–China relationship could become the foundation stone for peace in Ukraine.
Yet significant doubts remain that the administration will prove capable of the flexibility required toward its proclaimed adversaries to make good on this opening.
When China first issued its principles for peace in Ukraine in February, the Biden administration — and Blinken himself — dismissed the move as providing cover for Russia, saying that China has no credibility because it has not condemned Russia’s invasion. The disdain the administration poured on China’s efforts followed a drumbeat of warnings from top Biden officials that China was considering providing lethal support to Russia — warnings that may have been motivated by a desire to discredit China’s pretensions to neutrality, since the administration admitted there wasn’t “any indication” of such a decision in the offing.
China’s public comments on a peace process for Ukraine have indeed been insubstantial, carefully pitched as platitudes rather than facing the enormous difficulties of the situation, and China’s posture in the conflict has clearly favored Russia. Yet Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky responded in quite a different fashion than Biden, cautiously welcoming Beijing’s efforts and endorsing parts of its stated peace principles.
In our view, this was the proper response. The issuance of morally correct pronouncements is not worth much — what is needed in the current situation are inducements to bring Russia to the table, and China is well-positioned to play such a role if it so chooses.
Rather than taking its cue from Zelensky, the Biden response was of a piece with its larger orientation toward all Chinese foreign policy initiatives: publicly seeking to discredit Beijing’s goals and motivations. The outcome of such an approach has been, across the board, not progress on the Biden administration’s complaints but merely to poison the relationship with China, pushing Russia and China closer together and throwing away opportunities for productive U.S.–China cooperation.
In such a context, Blinken’s otherwise unremarkable diplomatic gesture of welcoming China’s efforts on Ukraine stands out as marking a potential shift in strategy that could open significant new diplomatic opportunities.
However, if the Biden administration has decided to embark on a new course, it will have to face several knotty problems. The first concerns the terms on which Washington would seek to work with China to pursue peace. According to David Ignatius of the Washington Post, U.S. officials have suggested that “The predicate for any such diplomatic effort would be Ukrainian gains on the battlefield, which could put Kyiv in a stronger bargaining position.”
This position is too limiting, because all the possible outcomes of the promised Ukrainian offensive point towards the need for talks on a ceasefire, on which China’s help could prove instrumental. If the Ukrainian offensive succeeds in breaking through and threatening Russia’s hold on Crimea, there is a strong likelihood of radical Russian escalation, and calls from European governments (and many in Washington) for a ceasefire that would consolidate Ukrainian gains without risking nuclear war.
If on the other hand the Ukrainian army fails to achieve a breakthrough, leading to the prospect of an indefinite military stalemate, then Western (and especially European) willingness to go on providing existing levels of support to Ukraine may decline steeply and calls for a ceasefire could grow. If the Ukrainians fail badly with heavy losses and Russia successfully counter-attacks, then a ceasefire will become urgently necessary to save Ukraine from losing more territory. Is the administration willing to work with China even under more desperate circumstances?
A second difficulty is whether the administration is ready to face hard and unpopular choices. Blinken and other U.S. officials have also been highly ambiguous about the terms for peace that they would be willing to advocate or accept. This may be creative ambiguity — or it may reflect ambivalence and indecision. If the latter, it is unlikely to inspire much confidence in Beijing.
Above all, this relates to the issue of territory. On the one hand, the Biden administration has repeatedly stated that the terms of peace are entirely a matter for Ukraine — and the Ukrainian government has repeatedly stated that the return of all the territory lost by Ukraine since 2014 (including Crimea) is “non-negotiable.” This means that a peace settlement cannot be negotiated, since barring total military defeat, no Russian government will surrender Crimea. Expecting the Chinese government to pressure Russia into this is pointless. Beijing won’t do it and Moscow wouldn’t accept it.
There are serious fears in Washington that, faced with the possible loss of Crimea, Russia would escalate towards nuclear war. For this reason, Biden administration officials have also hinted that there could in fact be some form of compromise over Crimea, if Ukraine recovers the territory it has lost over the past year. But given the unbridgeable distance between the formal positions of Kyiv and Moscow, a formal peace settlement seems impossible. That, however, still leaves open the possibility of a negotiated and durable ceasefire, in which continued Russian control of some Ukrainian territory would be accepted de facto (but not de jure) pending future negotiations — similar to the situation in Cyprus, Kashmir, and elsewhere.
A final question hanging over the administration’s professed interest in Chinese mediation is whether enough trust between the U.S. and China could be built to underwrite the process. Blinken has stated that one reason China’s involvement might be desirable is to guard against Russia simply rebuilding its forces and attacking Ukraine again in the future. This is entirely true, but it brings with it two essential corollaries that the Biden administration, and the Washington establishment in general, may be very far from accepting.
The first is that Washington would have to throw its full public weight and influence behind a ceasefire; and if it asks China to use its influence with Russia to prevent a future Russian offensive, it will have to commit itself to using America’s influence with Ukraine to prevent a future Ukrainian offensive. Given the breakdown in the U.S.–China relationship, suspicions in Beijing will be high that Washington is looking to pin responsibility on China for a ceasefire to which the U.S. itself feels no obligation — as with U.S. policy towards the Minsk II agreement of 2015 that France and Germany brokered to solve the Donbas conflict.
The second corollary is that if China is to be involved not just in reaching a ceasefire but in an ongoing long-term effort to maintain a ceasefire and support peace talks, then Washington will have to accept an economic role for China in the reconstruction of Ukraine and a certain Chinese say in European security. That would go against the entire recent trend of U.S. policy towards China; but without this acceptance, it is hard to see how Chinese commitment to Ukrainian peace could be retained.
The Biden administration stands at a crossroads. It can build on this meager but noteworthy shift in tone, recognizing that U.S. and Chinese interests are more often aligned than opposed, and explore what might be accomplished when the two most powerful countries in the world step away from confrontation.
Or, facing the frustrations that would inevitably accompany dialogue with Beijing and the demagoguery in the U.S. that would inevitably follow a constructive relationship with China, the administration can resume its path to open conflict.