Beijing Winter Olympics in 2022 were the triumph of China’s global image – the country successfully hosted a grand international event amid the COVID-19 pandemic and was on the verge of economic recovery: it planned to start supply chain restoration with the West. However, the following Russian invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022 cut off these intentions. It embarrassed China, forcing Beijing to pick sides between Russia, which fights in strategic isolation, and Ukraine, which is aligned with the West. Instead, the Chinese leadership has taken a neutral stance, pursued sovereign interests across political and economic domains, and remained in touch with both Russia and Ukraine to promote the necessity of immediate ceasefires and talks.
The upshot of the Chinese appeal for peace was the Global Security Initiative (GSI), proposed by Xi Jinping in the spring of 2022. Regrettably, the war escalated, and China’s brokerage role was seriously actualized only after Xi’s visit to Moscow in the spring of 2023. But the Structural Challenges of the Russo-Ukraine war are still undermining Beijing’s peacekeeper initiative. They are a menace not just to newly established China’s status as a global security provider after Beijing-made Saudi Arabia – Iran reconciliation deal but also to the Chinese position within the geostrategic competition with America. This article deals with Beijing’s broker motivation and the challenge of Russo-Ukrainian confrontation issues preventing Beijing from reaching its peacekeeper potential between the two warring states.
After the Global Financial Crisis in 2008, Beijing was looking for new drivers of economic growth; the decision was found in the vast infrastructure construction launch, which let China modernize its transportation connectivity and set up the longest high-speed rail network in the world. But internal infrastructure development was not enough to increase trade between China and other Eurasian states, thereby Xi Jinping 2013 vigorously proposed Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) meant to establish a linkage with various countries in the continent by injecting Chinese investment into Asia and Europe. Eurasia was a primary area where Xi has been making cooperation efforts for the last ten years, so regional calm condition is in the interest of China.
However, Eurasian stability was shaken by Russia’s decision to wage a full-scale war against Ukraine, and Beijing came up with a mediation initiative due to three reasons. For starters, China had to reinforce a connection with Western Europe and restore raw goods imported from Ukraine. The US-China tensions with technological sanctions on Chinese tech giants pose an obstacle to further Chinese modernization and industry 4.0 advancement, particularly in the field of semiconductors. Against the background of the two great states’ competition, investment cooperation sags as well, and American businesses do not see China as the only single lucrative destination for manufacturing allocation anymore.
The possibility of “Chimerica” decoupling in the near future is very high. Under such circumstances, Europe, especially France, and Germany, become key economic and technological Beijing partners, ready to invest, increase trade turnover and share valuable know-how. The link between China and European states is intensified by BRI projects; for instance, Chinese Cosco purchased 24.9% of Hamburg port shares, but the connectivity would be obviously better if post-war Ukraine participated in BRI too. That is why Beijing supports the quick end of the war and start of Ukraine’s rebuild, after which the country will become a section of the China-Europe logistics corridor and increase its agricultural export to China. Beijing already publicly stated that it might contribute to the postwar reconstruction.
Then, from China’s point of view, the West was weakened after Brexit, the Crimea annexation and the COVID-19 pandemic; in 2021, Xi said: “East is rising and West is declining,” therefore Beijing’s brokerage between Moscow and Kyiv can help it to strengthen global posture, namely become sole security provider in Eurasia, enfeebling American influence there. China justified such intent by using GSI to induce Saudi Arabia and Iran to reach a peace and détente after long-term regional animosity. Teheran and Riyadh both won economically, provided with the opportunity to penetrate the Chinese huge market with their hydrocarbon resources and get rid of US dollar dependency. Already given the mediator status in the Middle East, China is willing to become a broker between Russia and Ukraine, which will justify Beijing’s growing global role. Moreover, once China is acknowledged by international society as a peacekeeper, it will be much easier for the country to perform reunification with Taiwan through soft power rather than hard power usage.
Finally, the Russo-Ukrainian war has already altered the world order, and China wants to find its place in the new international architecture not as a rerun “world factory” of cheap goods but as a great power – a regional leader with strong economic influence. This is the real purpose of GSI, carried out by Xi. He, as any other realpolitik practitioner, is aware the USA-led unipolar “rules-based” order is swiftly changing into an unbalanced multipolar structure with a few centers of gravity, made up of great powers fiercely competing within the geopolitical spheres of interests, as argued by R. Kagan in his work “The jungle grows back.” Thus, the possible Russia-Ukraine successful Beijing mediation will lead to world tectonic changes similar to the Yalta-Potsdam system establishment and further shift of the geoeconomic center to Asia, end of the Westcentrism epoch in international relations.
Xi went to Moscow and later was said to give Ukrainian President Zelensky a phone call personally, but it did not happen because of war Structural Challenges, which have been slowing down peaceful Chinese efforts until now. Firstly, Ukrainian territorial integrity and sovereignty are an issue because Kyiv is fighting for its own land and its sole position is in overwhelming victory on the battlefield and the total liberation of Ukrainian soil – Russian troops withdrawal from Ukraine, including Crimea. To achieve this goal, Kyiv continues to receive Western military aid and is actively preparing the army for the counteroffensive scheduled on the period from April to June this year. Beijing’s call for an immediate ceasefire practically means a freeze of the conflict without full de-occupation. Thus, now President Zelensky only offers Xi to join his own peace plan and cannot accept some points of Chinese peace initiative and brokerage until the Ukrainian counteroffensive is performed. The truth is that Ukrainian society is not morally ready for the stoppage of the war and will not be happy with any political negotiations, even via Xi’s mediation. This is the critical influence of society on the state’s international politics, which is emphasized by realists, in particular, H. Morgenthau.
Secondly, Ukraine is currently dependent on the American military and financial support, and it is unlikely the USA will welcome China’s brokerage efforts. Only with confidence in economic and financial assistance in the form of investment and trade increase did President Zelensky may attract Beijing to negotiations. But another challenge for him is some Ukrainian elites’ attitude, who accept the West as the single security guarantees provider: there are some groups in the Ukrainian parliament rejecting China as the broker. To pay attention to ideological differences between two states and Beijing’s neutral position towards the conflict, in October 2022, a group of Ukrainian lawmakers visited Taiwan.
Thirdly, in the light of close China-Russia geostrategic and economic ties, Xi has also to take into account Moscow’s ambitions to retain occupied territories, at least Crimea. Otherwise, the Ukrainian victory will delegitimize Putin’s regime and cause powerful crisis inside Russia. Beijing cannot use economic statecraft to incline Moscow to make territorial concessions to Ukraine in order to favor Kyiv because it will mean Russian strategic defeat – a dangerous event for China amid the ongoing competition with the USA, whereas Putin supports Beijing on such sensitive issues like reunification with Taiwan, territorial claims in the South China sea, army modernization, creating Eurasian transportation corridors as well as raw resources supply at moderate prices.
To conclude, China is interested in the quick Russo-Ukraine war ending and Xi can become mediator between Moscow and Kyiv, but now sides are preparing for military clash and are not ready to meet each other halfway. It is a diplomatic stalemate, thus Beijing will stay neural and closely watch the dynamics of Ukrainian counteroffensive with its consequences, continue balancing irreconcilable interests of two states and wait until they may start talks. Then China will pop up with its peacemaking initiative again.
About Author: Petro Shevchenko, Ph. D student at the Economics department, Jilin University, China.
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