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China unlikely to play peacemaker role in Ukraine war, Western officials and experts say

Beijing tends to play it safe in its diplomacy and remains reluctant to pressure Moscow, foreign diplomats and former U.S. officials say.
An Ukrainian serviceman walks near residential buildings damaged by shelling in Bakhmut, Ukraine
An Ukrainian serviceman walks near residential buildings damaged by shelling in Bakhmut, Ukraine, on April 23.Anatolii Stepanov / AFP via Getty Images file

The Biden administration and U.S. allies doubt China can play a decisive role in bringing an end to the war in Ukraine, given Beijing’s tendency to play it safe in the diplomatic arena and its reluctance to alienate Russia, Western diplomats and former U.S. officials say.

Although China has offered a peace proposal and plans to send an envoy to the region next week, there is no indication it is ready to wade in as a full-blown mediator with all the risks that could entail, former U.S. officials and two Western diplomats said.

“We’re skeptical,” one Western diplomat said. “They’ve been anything but neutral in their language.”

Chinese President Xi Jinping did not speak to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy until more than a year after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and Beijing continues to echo Moscow’s talking points about the causes of the conflict, avoiding the use of the word “war” when referring to the fighting in Ukraine. 

The Biden administration wants to convey the impression of at least being open to the possibility of a positive Chinese role, but expectations remain low, said Evan Medeiros, a professor at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University who served as a senior adviser on Asia to then-President Barack Obama. 

“I think they’re appropriately skeptical of the role that China might actually play,” Medeiros said.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken earlier this month said the U.S. would welcome any effort by China to help end the war, saying “if they’re willing to play a positive role in trying to bring peace, that would be a good thing.”

But he added that China needed to support the principle that “there’s a victim and there’s an aggressor” in the conflict. “And I have to say, until recently, it was very unclear whether China accepted that basic principle. I’m still not sure that they do, but at least President Xi has now had a conversation with President Zelenskyy.”

China’s position on the Ukraine conflict “is consistent and clear,” said Liu Pengyu, spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Washington.

“China has been committed to promoting peace talks and bringing about a political settlement of the Ukraine crisis,” he said, adding: “Both President Putin and President Zelenskyy welcomed China’s important role in restoring peace and resolving the crisis through diplomatic means."

In discussions in Vienna on Tuesday and Wednesday between President Joe Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, and China’s senior foreign policy adviser, Wang Yi, the American side “pressed for some constructive engagement on Ukraine” and repeated U.S. concerns that Beijing should refrain from providing military assistance to Russia, senior administration officials told reporters.

Avoiding risk 

China increasingly presents itself as a powerful state with global reach, but its approach to diplomacy remains cautious. There is no precedent for it plunging into a difficult peace negotiation, putting its reputation on the line or twisting the arm of an important partner like Russia, former U.S. officials said.

“There’s no question that they are becoming incrementally more ambitious in their diplomacy as they are in many other areas of world affairs,” said Jacob Stokes, who served in the Obama administration on the national security staff of then-Vice President Biden. “The question is, how ambitious and what costs and burdens are they willing to carry?” said Stokes, now a senior fellow for the Indo-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security think tank.

For years, Washington hoped Beijing could use its influence to push Pyongyang to make concessions over North Korea's nuclear weapons program. 

“That was the view,” said Victor Cha, who took part in the six-party nuclear talks more than a decade ago including the U.S, Japan, Russia and the two Koreas. “It never really worked. “

China’s diplomacy is designed to avoid incurring risk, he said, and Beijing’s approach to the North Korea talks was to invite the parties to meet without trying to shape the substance of the negotiations.

“If you’re going to be a mediator, you have to put a lot more stake into the success of the negotiation, rather than simply creating a venue for people to talk,” Cha said.

The six-party talks, held in six rounds between 2003 and 2009, “were a revealing experience about what really motivated China,” Medeiros of Georgetown said.

China were not prepared to take substantial action against North Korea over its nuclear weapons “because at the end of the day, they cared much more about maintaining their influence on the Korean Peninsula and maintaining North Korea as a buffer state than they ever did about nonproliferation,” he said. 

China’s interests on North Korea were not in sync with the U.S. or its allies, Medeiros said. “I think ultimately with Russia, we’re going to find the same thing.”

How Beijing calculates its interests in Ukraine remains an open question. Some experts argue that China wants to see the fighting halted for the sake of the global economy and to ensure that Russia, its partner, does not suffer a devastating defeat.

It’s also uncertain “what real leverage or pressure Beijing would be willing to bring to bear against Moscow to end this conflict and what benefit would come to them for having done so,” a senior Senate aide said.

Some Western officials said China could have a more limited, but useful, part to play in encouraging Russia to hold cease-fire talks, without necessarily negotiating detailed proposals or pressing Moscow to make compromises.

At the moment, neither Russia nor Ukraine appears ready for peace talks or cease-fire discussions as both sides believe they can make gains on the battlefield. CIA Director William Burns said in February that Russian President Vladimir Putin believes his forces can wear down Ukraine in a war of attrition and that Western support for Kyiv will fade over time.

Ukraine’s ambassador to the U.S., Oksana Markarova, said last week in Washington that her government was “ready to cooperate with anyone who’s ready to help us."

“I think we should focus — and that’s our goal — on not how to bring Russia to the table, but how to get them out of Ukraine,” Markarova said at an event organized by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank.

Asked if Ukraine supported the prospect of China as a peace mediator, she said: “We don’t need a broker. Nobody needs a broker for Russia to get out from Ukraine, you know?”