Russia-Ukraine: Can China do mediation?

China, Geopolitics, and the Global South

Global geopolitics, especially the conflict between China and the USA, plays a central role in the future of the war against Ukraine: For many observers, Beijing could play a key part in a negotiated solution. The attempt to square the circle of distancing itself from Putin’s war, but not letting Russia go under could be helpful. However, a further intensification of the confrontation with the USA in Asia would stand in the way here.

by Uwe Hoering, March 28, 2022

The war against Ukraine provides ample ammunition for criticism of the Chinese government: The affirmation of an “unlimited friendship” between China and Russia in Beijing in early February, the allegation that President Vladimir Putin informed President Xi Jinping in advance about the military incursion, the lukewarm condemnation of the invasion, the sympathy for Russia’s “legitimate security interests”, the refusal to participate in Western sanctions and the suggestion that the Ukraine war could provide the blueprint for a military approach to the Taiwan issue are some of the accusations.

Beijing’s dilemmas

At least the signals of disapproval from Beijing are now piling up: The abstention on the UN resolution condemning the invasion or the hesitation to stand by Russia with equipment or in the face of sanctions. Meanwhile, Chinese commentaries themselves make clear that Putin’s Russia is regarded as a rude partner, with a tendency towards “adventurism” and “muscle politics”, with the invasion seen as a strategic blunder. And even friendship with Russia has its limit at the principles of the UN Charter, said Chinese Ambassador Qin Gang. By now, war may also be called “war” in China.

It is obvious that the conflict is inconvenient for China for many reasons: The impact on transport routes with Europe is the least of the problems, as they can easily be compensated by other options. The consequences for the supply of grain, oil and natural gas are more serious, especially since rising Corona figures, domestic and foreign economic problems are already leaving their mark on growth prospects. And the important, already tense relations with the European Union will be further strained.

Particularly damaging is the credibility dilemma the invasion poses to Beijing’s carefully cultivated international image.

Particularly damaging is the credibility dilemma the invasion poses to Beijing’s carefully cultivated international image, especially in the Global South. After all, the commitment to nation-state sovereignty, which has been violated in several ways by Russia, is a cornerstone of Chinese foreign policy, with which it also likes to distinguish itself from imperialist powers in the past and present. And the narrative of “legitimate security interests”, used by Beijing to save itself from the dilemma, only raises the speculation that it will be able to justify its own military adventures in the future.

However, there are also substantial considerations that stand in the way of the frequently demanded condemnation of Beijing’s friend and big neighbour. For one, there are the huge natural resources on which China depends, another is the common geopolitical stand against ‘the West’, especially against the USA, and the feeling of being increasingly subjected to pressure.

When far off in Europe …’

However, a eurocentric approach fails to recognise that China is not alone in this dilemma between principles and realpolitik. India, which is being courted as a shining star of the democratic ‘community of shared values’, has also abstained from voting on the UN resolution and continues to refrain from criticising Russia – partly for similar reasons as Beijing. Many other governments in Asia have supported the UN resolution because the principle of national sovereignty is also a high priority for them. However, the language in which they condemn Moscow’s actions is moderate, often limited to calls for dialogue and a peaceful resolution of the crisis.

They are all the more cautious about the sanctions against Russia pushed by the USA and the EU. The regional alliance ASEAN, for example, “avoids choosing sides amid the increased strategic polarisation”, as Sebastian Strangio writes in The Diplomat. To some extent, they probably also regard it as a predominantly transatlantic-Western affair, when now ‘far away in Europe, the peoples are clashing’. Therefore, President Biden’s call to make Russia the ‘pariah of the world community’ is probably wishful thinking.

Give peace a chance?

Meanwhile, more and more commentators are arguing that the key to a negotiated solution now lies in Beijing. Stephen Roach for example, professor at Yale University, is convinced that “only China can stop Russia”. Behind the scenes, Beijing is already playing “a constructive role”, notes the South China Morning Post, perhaps even in tandem with India. Besides bilateral contacts, the United Nations or the G20 of industrialised and emerging countries could become increasingly important. Apart from its self-interest, China is also the country with the best means to build a bridge for Moscow out of the deadlocked situation.

Chinese mediation that would help end the war could also make up for lost ground in Europe. If Beijing and President Xi play their cards right, as some observers and advisers calculate, they could gain a lot – in international reputation, as the high-ranking political adviser Hu Wei believes, and as a stabilising factor in a new global order.

Confrontation in the Far East

Besides hoping for Chinese pragmatism and influence, however, there are also adverse signals of using the conflict with Russia to intensify the geopolitical confrontation: Harsh threats by President Biden that Chinese support for Russia would create ‘red lines’ do not exactly sound like offers of cooperation in the search for solutions. An illustration of hawkish thinking towards China is provided by David Sacks, Research Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR): With Europe pushing ahead with rearmament, this would open up the door for the US to concentrate its forces on Asia. As a result, “the United States would have a better opportunity than ever to finally pivot to Asia and focus on the more formidable challenge China represents”.

The stronger the perceived US pressure on China in the Far East is becoming, the more important Putin and Russia in turn are for Beijing.

But the stronger the perceived US pressure on China in the Far East is becoming, the more important Putin and Russia in turn are for Beijing, which would be forged all the more firmly on Russia’s side. For apart from the problems it is currently creating for China, Russia continues to play a central role in China’s strategy of partial decoupling from Western imports, strengthening ‘self-reliance’ and close cooperation with the countries of the Global South. Moreover, in the escalating confrontation in Asia, Russia acts as a backstop, an additional nuclear power and ‘hinterland’.

Another sign that the Ukraine crisis is also fuelling tensions in the Far East is Moscow’s recent affront to Japan, with which it is formally still in World War II due to the absence of a peace treaty. Negotiations over the Kurile chain of islands in the Western Pacific, about which the two countries have been at loggerheads for more than seven decades, have abruptly been called off.

In view of such a complex and controversial situation, resorting to heavy-handed methods to force Beijing to make a decision between Russia and ‘the West’ would probably be an illusion, if not a fatal mistake.

Translated with (free version)

Uwe Hoering, Russia-Ukraine: Can China do mediation? China, Geopolitics, and the Global South, March 28, 2022.

Leave a Reply