President Xi Jinping heads to Russia on Monday hoping to deliver a breakthrough on Ukraine
as China seeks to position itself as a peacemaker.
Freshly reappointed for a third term in power, Xi is pushing a greater role for China on the
global stage, and was crucial in mediating a surprise rapprochement between Middle Eastern
rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia this month.
Rumours that he may soon hold his first call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky
since the outbreak of war have raised hopes in Western capitals that Xi may lean on his “old
friend” Putin to stop his bloody invasion during the three-day state visit.
Announcing the trip Friday, foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said China would “play
a constructive role in promoting peace talks”.
“Stopping the war is everyone’s wish, given Europe stands to lose such a lot and the United
States may not be able to support Ukraine for as long as it thinks it can,” said Wang Yiwei,
director of the Institute of International Afairs at Beijing’s Renmin University of China.
“China can put forth its views on both sides — it can say it is a trusted friend of both Ukraine
and Russia. I think this is very significant.”
Beijing, a major Russian ally, has long sought to depict itself as a neutral party to the conflict.
But it has refused to condemn Russia’s invasion and has sharply criticised Washington’s
support for Kyiv — leading Western leaders to accuse Beijing of providing diplomatic cover for
Russia to bludgeon its European neighbour.
“Beijing has done remarkably little so far to encourage peace in Ukraine, since any credible
efort would require pressuring Russia or at least calling Russia out directly,” said Elizabeth
Wishnick, a professor and Chinese foreign policy expert at Montclair State University in the
Xi’s trip — which comes afer the International Criminal Court on Friday announced an arrest
warrant for Putin on war crimes accusations — aims “to show whatever support for his
strategic partner he can provide, short of aid that would result in sanctions”, she told AFP.
- Much talk, little substance –
Seeking to play the peacemaker, China last month published a 12-point position paper on the
war in Ukraine, calling for dialogue and respect for all countries’ territorial sovereignty.
Beijing has also touted its Global Security Initiative (GSI), a hallmark Xi policy that aims to
“promote durable peace and development”.
Both documents have drawn ire in the West for dwelling on broad principles instead of
practical solutions to the crisis.
China’s recent diplomacy around the war appeared to be “an attempt to highlight” the GSI
and “build momentum for its foreign policy and re-engagement with the world”, said Ja Ian
Chong, an associate professor at the National University of Singapore.
“Whether (China) is actually stepping up its eforts to play peacemaker in a meaningful way
will depend on the substance of what it proposes during meetings with leaders from Ukraine
and Russia,” said Chong, who specialises in Beijing’s international relations.
“Their previous peace plan was more about general principles than actionable proposals.”
- ‘Not impartial’ –
Beijing’s eforts to show itself to be an international mediator were front and centre this
month when it oversaw a deal that restored diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and
It later emerged that Xi himself ofered for China to serve as a “bridge” between the rivals,
challenging Washington’s long-standing role as the main external power broker in the Middle
“Brokering the (Saudi-Iran) deal feeds into the Chinese government’s narrative of being a
positive-sum global player promoting peace and cooperation that contrasts with
Washington’s purportedly destabilising actions,” said University of Southern California
assistant professor Audrye Wong.
But stilling the gunfire in Ukraine would be “somewhat harder” than the Saudi-Iran deal, said
Wang of Renmin University, citing China’s “limited” influence over Moscow and US backing
Beijing, he suggested, could help usher in “an armistice similar to the one formed from the
Korean War” that stops the fighting but kicks questions of territorial sovereignty further down
But Wishnick, of Montclair State, said Ukraine was “unlikely to accept China as a mediator
since it is not viewed as neutral or impartial”.
“Xi may be eager for diplomatic successes, but I just don’t see one on the horizon in Ukraine,”
“Neither side is willing to give up hope yet for territorial gains on the battlefield.”