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Is China the only way for peace to come to Ukraine?

Is China the only way for peace to come to Ukraine?

It's beginning to look as though Beijing has the means, motivation, and ultimate self-interest to end the war.

Analysis | Europe

All wars do end, usually thanks to a negotiated peace agreement. Consider that a fundamental historical fact, even if it seems to have been forgotten in Brussels, Moscow, and above all, Washington, D.C.

In recent months, among Russian President Vladimir Putin’s followers, there has been much talk of a “forever war” in Ukraine dragging on for years, if not decades. “For us,” Putin told a group of factory workers recently, “this is not a geopolitical task, but a task of the survival of Russian statehood, creating conditions for the future development of the country and our children.”

Visiting Kyiv last February, President Joseph Biden assured Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, “You remind us that freedom is priceless; it’s worth fighting for, for as long as it takes. And that’s how long we’re going to be with you, Mr. President: for as long as it takes.” A few weeks later, the European Council affirmed “its resolute condemnation of Russia’s actions and unwavering support for Ukraine and its people.” 

With all the major players already committed to fighting a forever war, how could peace possibly come about? With the U.N. compromised by Russia’s seat on the Security Council and the G-7 powers united in condemning “Russia’s illegal, unjustifiable, and unprovoked war of aggression against Ukraine,” the most likely dealmaker when it comes to ending this forever war may prove to be President Xi Jinping of China.

In the West, Xi’s self-styled role as a peacemaker in Ukraine has been widely mocked. In February, on the first anniversary of the Russian invasion, China’s call for negotiations as the “only viable solution to the Ukraine crisis” sparked a barbed reply from U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan who claimed the war “could end tomorrow if Russia stopped attacking Ukraine.”

When Xi visited Moscow in March, the statement Chinese officials released claiming that he hoped to “play a constructive role in promoting talks” prompted considerable Western criticism. “I don’t think China can serve as a fulcrum on which any Ukraine peace process could move,” insisted Ryan Hass, a former American diplomat assigned to China. Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, pointed out that “China has taken sides” in the conflict by backing Russia and so could hardly become a peacemaker. Even when Xi made a personal call to Zelensky promising to dispatch an envoy to promote negotiations “with all parties,” critics dismissed that overture as so much damage control for China’s increasingly troubled trade relations with Europe.

The Symbolism of Peace Conferences

Still, think about it for a moment. Who else could bring the key parties to the table and potentially make them honor their signatures on a peace treaty? Putin has, of course, already violated U.N. accords by invading a sovereign state, while rupturing his economic entente with Europe and trashing past agreements with Washington to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty. And yet the Russian president relies on China’s support, economically and otherwise, which makes Xi the only leader who might be able to bring him to the bargaining table and ensure that he honors any agreement he signs. That sobering reality should raise serious questions about how any future Beijing-inspired peace conference might happen and what it would mean for the current world order.    

For more than 200 years, peace conferences have not only resolved conflicts but regularly signaled the arrival at stage center of a new world power. In 1815, amid the whirling waltzes in Vienna’s palaces that accompanied negotiations ending the Napoleonic wars, Britain emerged for its century-long reign as the globe’s greatest power. Similarly, the 1885 Berlin Conference that carved up the continent of Africa for colonial rule heralded Germany’s rise as Britain’s first serious rival. The somber deliberations in Versailles’s grand Hall of Mirrors that officially ended World War I in 1919 marked America’s debut on the world stage. Similarly, the 1945 peace conference at San Francisco that established the U.N. (just as World War II was about to end) affirmed the ascent of U.S. global hegemony.

Imagine the impact if, sooner or later, envoys from Kyiv and Moscow convene in Beijing beneath the gaze of President Xi and find the elusive meeting point between Russia’s aspirations and Ukraine’s survival. One thing would be guaranteed: after years of disruptions in the global energy, fertilizer, and grain markets, marked by punishing inflation and spreading hunger, all eyes from five continents would indeed turn toward Beijing.

After all, with the war disrupting grain and fertilizer shipments via the Black Sea, world hunger doubled to an estimated 345 million people in 2023, while basic food insecurity now afflicts 828 million inhabitants of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Should such negotiations ever prove fruitful, a televised signing ceremony, hosted by President Xi and watched by countless millions globally, would crown China’s rapid 20-year ascent to world power.

Forget Ukraine for a moment and concentrate on China’s economic rise under communist rule, which has been little short of extraordinary. At the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, China was an economic lightweight. Its massive population, 20% of the world’s total, was producing just 4% of global economic output. So weak was China that its leader Mao Zedong had to wait two weeks amid a Moscow winter for an audience with Soviet leader Joseph Stalin just to plead for the industrial technology that would help rebuild an economy devastated by 12 years of war and revolution. In the decade following its admission to the World Trade Organization in 2002, however, China quickly became the workshop of the world, accumulating an unprecedented $4 trillion in foreign-exchange reserves.

Instead of simply swimming in a hoard of cash like Scrooge McDuck in his Money Bin, in 2013 President Xi announced a trillion-dollar development scheme called the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Its aim was to build a massive infrastructure across the Eurasian landmass and Africa, thereby improving the lives of humanity’s forgotten millions, while making Beijing the focal point of Eurasia’s economic development. Today, China is not only an industrial powerhouse that produces 18% of the global gross domestic product, or GDP (compared to 12% for the U.S.), but also the world’s chief creditor. It provides capital for infrastructure and industrial projects to 148 nations, while offering some hope to the quarter of humanity still subsisting on less than four dollars a day.

Testifying to that economic prowess, for the past six months, world leaders have ignored Washington’s pleas to form a united front against China. Instead, remarkable numbers of them, including Germany’s Olaf Scholz, Spain’s Pedro Sánchez, and Brazil’s Lula da Silva, have been turning up in Beijing to pay court to President Xi. In April, even French President and U.S. ally Emmanuel Macron visited the Chinese capital where he proclaimed a “global strategic partnership with China” and urged other countries to become less reliant on the “extraterritoriality of the U.S. dollar.”

Then, in a diplomatic coup that stunned Washington, China took a key step toward healing the dangerous sectarian rivalry between Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia by hosting a meeting of their foreign ministers in Beijing. As the Saudis’ chief oil customer and Iran’s largest creditor, Beijing had the commercial clout to bring them to the bargaining table. China’s top diplomat Wang Yi then hailed the restored diplomatic relations as part of his country’s “constructive role in facilitating the proper settlement of hot-spot issues around the world.”

Geopolitics as a Source of Change

Underlying the sudden display of Chinese diplomatic clout is a recent shift in that essential realm called “geopolitics” that’s driving a fundamental realignment in global power. Around 1900, at the high tide of the British Empire, an English geographer, Sir Halford Mackinder, started the modern study of geopolitics by publishing a highly influential article arguing that the construction of the 5,000-mile-long Trans-Siberian Railway from Moscow to Vladivostok was the beginning of a merger of Europe and Asia. That unified land mass, he said, would soon become the epicenter of global power.

In 1997, in his book The Grand Chess Board, former U.S. National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brezinski updated MacKinder, arguing that “geopolitics has moved from the regional to the global dimension, with preponderance over the entire Eurasian continent serving as the central basis for global primacy.” In words particularly apt for our present world, he added: “America’s global primacy is directly dependent on how long and how effectively its preponderance on the Eurasian continent is sustained.”

More than a quarter-century later, imagine geopolitics as a deep substrate shaping far more superficial political events, even if it’s only noticeable in certain moments, much the way the incessant grinding of the planet’s tectonic plates only becomes visible when volcanic eruptions break through the earth’s surface. For centuries, if not millennia, Europe was separated from Asia by endless deserts and sprawling grasslands. The empty center of that vast land mass was crossed only by an occasional string of camels travelling the ancient Silk Road.

Now, thanks to its trillion-dollar investment in infrastructure — rails, roads, pipelines, and ports — China is fundamentally changing that geopolitical substrate through a more than metaphoric merger of continents. If President Xi’s grand design succeeds, Beijing will forge a unified market stretching 6,000 miles from the North Sea to the South China Sea, eventually encompassing 70% of all humanity, and effectively fusing Europe and Asia into a single economic continent: Eurasia.

Despite the Biden administration’s fervid attempts to create an anti-Chinese coalition, recent diplomatic eruptions are shaping a new world order that isn’t at all what Washington has in mind. With the economic creation of a true Eurasian sphere seemingly underway, from that Iran-Saudi entente to Macron’s visit to Beijing, we may be seeing the first signs of the changing face of international politics. The question is: Could a Chinese-engineered peace in Ukraine be next in line?  

Pressures on China for Peace

Such growing geopolitical power is giving China both the motivation and potentially even the means to negotiate an end to the fighting in Ukraine. First, the means: as Russia’s chief customer for its commodity exports, and Ukraine’s largest trading partner before the war, China can use commercial pressure to bring both parties to the bargaining table — much as it did for Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Next, the motivation: while Moscow and Kyiv might each exude confidence in ultimate victory in their forever war, Beijing has reason to grow impatient with the economic disruptions radiating out across the Black Sea to roil a delicately balanced global economy. According to the World Bank, almost half of humanity (47%) is now surviving on seven dollars a day, and most of them live in Africa, Asia, and Latin America where China has made massive, long-term developmental loans to 148 countries under its Belt and Road Initiative.

With 70% of its lands and their rich black soils devoted to agriculture, Ukraine has, for decades, produced bumper crops of wheat, barley, soybeans, and sunflower oil that made it “the breadbasket of the world,” providing the globe’s hungry millions with reliable shipments of affordable commodities. Right after the Russian invasion, however, world prices for grains and vegetable oils shot up by 60%. Despite stabilization efforts, including the U.N.’s Black Sea Grain Initiative to allow exports through the war zone, prices for such essentials remain all too high. And they threaten to go higher still with further disruption of global supply chains or more war damage like the recent rupture of a crucial Ukrainian irrigation dam that’s turning more than a million acres of prime farmland into “desert.”

As costs for imports of fertilizer, grain, and other foodstuffs have soared since the Russian invasion, the Council on Foreign Relations reports that “a climbing number of low-income BRI countries have struggled to repay loans associated with the initiative, spurring a wave of debt crises.” In the Horn of Africa, for example, the sixth year of a crippling drought has pushed an estimated 23 million people into a “hunger crisis,” forcing the governments of Ethiopia and Kenya to balance costly food imports with the repayment of Chinese loans for the creation of critical infrastructure like factories, railroads, and renewable energy. With such loans surpassing 20% of gross domestic product (GDP) in nations like Ghana, Malaysia, Pakistan, and Zambia, while China itself holds outstanding credits equivalent to 25% of its GDP, Beijing is far more invested in global economic peace and stability than any other major power.

Beyond Western Fantasies of Victory

At present, Beijing might seem alone among major nations in its concern about the strain the Ukraine war is placing on a world economy poised between starvation and survival. But within the coming six months, Western opinion will likely start to shift as its inflated expectations for Ukrainian victory in its long-awaited “spring counteroffensive” meet the reality of Russia’s return to trench warfare.

After the stunning success of Ukraine’s offensives late last year near Kharkiv and Kherson, the West dropped its reticence about provoking Putin and began shipping billions of dollars of sophisticated equipment — first, HIMARS and Hawk missiles, then Leopard and Abrams battle tanks, and, by the end of this year, advanced F-16 jet fighters. By the war’s first anniversary last February, the West had already provided Kyiv with $115 billion in aid and expectations of success rose with each new arms shipment. Adding to that anticipation, Moscow’s own “winter offensive” with its desperate suicide attacks on the city of Bakhmut suggested, as Foreign Affairs  put it, that “the Russian military demonstrated… it was no longer capable of large-scale combat operations.”

But defense is another matter. While Moscow was wasting some 20,000 lives on suicide assaults on Bakhmut, its specialized tractors were cutting a formidable network of trenches and tank traps along a 600-mile front designed to stall any Ukrainian counteroffensive.

Ukraine’s troops will probably achieve some breakthroughs when that offensive finally begins, but are unlikely to push Russia back from all its post-invasion gains. Remember that Russia’s army of 1.3 million is three times larger than Ukraine’s which has also suffered many casualties. In March, the commander of Ukraine’s 46th Air Assault brigade told the Washington Post that a year of combat had left 100 dead and 400 wounded in his 500-man unit and that they were being replaced by raw recruits, some of whom fled at the very sound of rifle fire. To counter the few dozen “symbolic” Leopard tanks the West is sending, Russia has thousands of older-model tanks in reserve. Despite U.S. and European sanctions, Russia’s economy has actually continued to grow, while Ukraine’s, which was only about a tenth the size of Russia’s, has shrunk by 30%. Facts like these mean just one thing is likely: stalemate.

Beijing as Peacemaker

By next December, if Ukraine’s counteroffensive has indeed stalled, its people face another cold, dark winter of drone attacks, while Russia’s rising casualties and lack of results might by then begin to challenge Putin’s hold on power. In other words, both combatants might feel far more compelled to sit down in Beijing for peace talks. With the threat of future disruptions damaging its delicate global position, Beijing will likely deploy its full economic power to press the parties for a settlement. By trading territory, while agreeing with China on reconstruction aid, and some further strictures on Ukraine’s future NATO membership, both sides might feel they had won enough concessions to sign an agreement.

Not only would China then gain enormous prestige for brokering such a peace deal, but it might win a preferential position in the reconstruction bonanza that would follow by offering aid to rebuild both a ravaged Ukraine and a damaged Russia. In a recent report, the World Bank estimates that it could take $411 billion over a decade to rebuild a devastated Ukraine through infrastructure contracts of the very kind Chinese construction companies are so ready to undertake. To sweeten such deals, Ukraine could also allow China to build massive factories to supply Europe’s soaring demand for renewable energy and electric vehicles. Apart from the profits involved, such Chinese-Ukrainian joint ventures would ramp up production at a time when that country is likely to gain duty-free access to the European market.

In the post-war moment, with the possibility that Ukraine will be an increasingly strong economic ally at the edge of Europe, Russia still a reliable supplier of cut-rate commodities, and the European market ever more open to its state corporations, China is likely to emerge from that disastrous conflict — to use Brzezinski’s well-chosen words — with its “preponderance over the entire Eurasian continent” consolidated and its “basis for global primacy” significantly strengthened.

This piece has been republished with permission from TomDispatch.

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