China as peacemaker in the Ukrainian war? The United States and Europe are skeptical.
WASHINGTON — As Chinese leader Xi Jinping prepares to meet President Vladimir V. Putin in Moscow this week, Chinese officials have defined his trip as a mission for peace, one in which he will seek to “play a constructive in promoting the talks”. between Russia and Ukraine, as a government spokesman in Beijing put it.
But US and European officials are watching something else entirely — whether Mr. Xi will add fuel to the full-scale war that Mr. Putin started more than a year ago.
US officials say China is still considering donating weapons – mostly artillery shells – to Russia for use in Ukraine. And even a call from Mr. Xi for a ceasefire would amount to an effort to strengthen Mr. Putin’s position on the battlefield, they say, by letting Russia control more territory than at the start of the invasion.
A ceasefire now would be “effectively ratifying the Russian conquest,” White House spokesman John Kirby said Friday. “It would in effect recognize Russia’s gains and its attempt to conquer its neighbor’s territory by force, allowing Russian troops to continue to occupy sovereign Ukrainian territory.”
“It would be a classic part of China’s playbook,” he added, for Chinese officials to walk out of the meeting saying “it’s us who are calling for an end to the fighting and no one is calling for an end to the fighting.” no one else does”.
This skepticism about one of Mr. Xi’s stated goals permeates thinking in Washington and some European capitals. US intelligence agencies concluded that relations between China and Russia deepened during the war, even as Russia isolated itself from many other countries.
The two countries continue to conduct joint military exercises and Beijing has joined Moscow in regularly denouncing the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. China remains one of the biggest buyers of Russian oil, which helped Moscow finance its invasion.
Chinese officials at no time condemned the invasion. Instead, they said ambiguously that all nations must respect each other’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. They worked with Russian diplomats to block international statements condemning the war, including at Group of 20 rallies in India in February and March.
While some Chinese officials view Mr. Putin’s war as destabilizing, they recognize a higher foreign policy priority: the need to strengthen Russia so that the two nations can present a united front against their perceived adversary, the United States. .
Mr. Xi made his views clear when he said earlier this month at an annual policy meeting in Beijing that “Western countries led by the United States have implemented containment, encirclement and a complete crackdown on China, which has posed unprecedented severe challenges to our country’s development.”
But China remains firmly entrenched in the global economy, and Mr. Xi and his aides want to avoid being viewed as malevolent actors on the global stage, especially in the eyes of Europe, a major trading partner. Some analysts say Mr Xi has adopted the guise of a peacemaker, saying he is on a mission to end the war to cover efforts to strengthen his partnership with Mr Putin, which the International Criminal Court has officially declared. charged Friday with war crimes in an arrest warrant.
Mr. Xi and Mr. Putin have a strong personal affinity and have met 39 times since Mr. Xi became China’s leader in 2012.
China’s release last month of a 12-point statement of general principles on the war was an attempt to create a smokescreen of neutrality when planning for Xi’s trip, some analysts say.
“I think China is trying to muddy the waters, to say we’re not here to support Russia, we’re here to support peace,” said Yun Sun, China foreign policy scholar at the Stimson Center in Washington. .
“There is an intrinsic need for China to maintain or protect the health of its relationship with Russia,” she said, adding that a senior Chinese official had told her that geopolitics and US intransigence were driving Beijing’s approach to the relationship – not love of Russia.
Ms Sun said the recent Chinese mediation of a first diplomatic rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran had reinforced the idea that China was a peacemaker. But this situation was entirely different from the war in Ukraine – the two Middle Eastern countries had already been in talks for years to try to revive formal diplomacy, and China entered the scene as the two sides had reached a OK. China is not a close partner of either country and has a very specific economic interest in preventing the two from escalating hostilities – it buys large amounts of oil from both.
When Mr. Putin visited Mr. Xi in Beijing just before the start of the Ukrainian war in February 2022, their governments proclaimed “limitless” partnership in a 5,000-word statement. The two men met again last September at a security conference in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. Mr. Xi has not spoken to Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, since the start of the war, let alone asked for his views on the peace talks.
Mr Zelensky said he would only begin peace talks if Mr Putin withdrew his troops from Ukrainian territory. This includes the Crimean peninsula, which the Russian army seized in 2014, and the Donbass region, where the same year Russian troops fueled a pro-Russian separatist insurgency.
Mr. Zelensky said he would welcome the opportunity to speak with Mr. Xi, and some Ukrainian officials hope that China will eventually exert its influence on Russia to get Mr. Putin to withdraw his troops . But China has not indicated that it would make such a move.
On Thursday, Qin Gang, China’s foreign minister, spoke by phone with Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine’s foreign minister, and stressed that the warring parties should “resume peace talks” and “returning to the path of political settlement,” according to a Chinese summary of the conversation.
In an interview with the BBC before Mr. Xi’s visit was announced, Mr. Kuleba said he believed China was neither ready to arm Russia nor bring peace. “The visit to Moscow in itself is a message, but I don’t think it will have immediate consequences,” he said.
Washington analysts agree. “I don’t think China can serve as a fulcrum on which any peace process in Ukraine could evolve,” said Ryan Hass, a former US diplomat in China and White House official, researcher at the Brookings Institution.
Mr. Hass added that China would play a role as part of a signatory or guarantee group for any eventual peace agreement and would be essential to the reconstruction of Ukraine. “I believe Zelensky understands that, which is why he’s been willing to be so patient with China and with Xi personally,” he said.
European officials have had varying attitudes toward China, and some prioritize preserving trade ties with Beijing. But China’s alignment with Russia throughout the war has sparked growing mistrust and hostility in many corners of Europe. News of Mr. Xi’s trip to Moscow was viewed with suspicion by some officials on Friday — they saw it as a further sign of China’s friendship if not alliance with Russia, as well as an effort to China to present itself as a mediator in the war. .
Wang Yi, China’s top foreign policy official, stressed the need for peace talks at the Munich security conference late last month before a stopover in Moscow. He used language that appeared to be aimed at alienating European nations from the United States.
“We must reflect calmly, especially our European friends, on the efforts to be made to stop the war; what framework to establish a lasting peace in Europe; what role should Europe play to demonstrate its strategic autonomy,” he said.
He suggested that Washington wanted the war to continue to further weaken Russia. “Some forces might not want to see the peace talks materialize,” he said. “They don’t care about the life and death of Ukrainians or the damage done to Europe. They might have broader strategic goals than Ukraine itself. This war must not continue.
But China’s 12-point statement has not been well received in Europe. And many European officials, like their Ukrainian and American counterparts, are convinced that the first talks on a peace settlement will come at the expense of Ukrainian sovereignty.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said China’s position was anything but neutral.
“It’s not a peace plan, but principles that they share,” she said of China’s statement. “You have to see them in a specific context. And it is in this context that China took sides, for example by signing an unlimited friendship just before the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
China’s regular denunciations of NATO make European officials cringe. In its position paper, China said “the security of a region should not be achieved by strengthening or expanding military blocs” – a statement that supports Mr Putin’s claim that he had to invade Ukraine due to threats including NATO expansion.
The Chinese position “is based on a misplaced focus on the so-called ‘legitimate security interests and concerns’ of the parties, which implies a justification for the illegal invasion of Russia and blurs the roles of the aggressor and the attacked,” said Nabila Massrali, spokesperson. for the foreign affairs and security policy of the European Union.
Jens Stoltenberg, the Secretary General of NATO, put it more simply: “China does not have much credibility”, in particular because it “was not able to condemn the illegal invasion of Ukrainian”.
Edward Wong reported from Washington, and Steven Erlanger from Brussels. Julian E. Barnes contributed reporting from Washington.