Europe Politics

China doesn't really care who wins the war in Ukraine — it just wants to win the peace, analysts say

Key Points
  • China has been eager to position itself as a peace broker to end the war between Russia and Ukraine.
  • Nonetheless, it has been conspicuously closer to Russia as the war has progressed, refusing to condemn or criticize the ongoing aggression against Ukraine.
  • Political analysts question whether China has the diplomatic skills — and perceived neutrality — needed to bring Russia and Ukraine to the negotiating table.
  • China is not seen as an entirely "honest broker" by analysts.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping leave after a reception in honor of the Chinese leader's visit to the Kremlin in Moscow on March 21, 2023.
Grigory Sysoev | Sputnik | via Reuters

China has been eager to position itself as a peace broker to end the war between Russia and Ukraine since the invasion began, offering to mediate between the countries soon after Russian troops pushed over the border.

But Beijing has remained conspicuously close to Russia as the war has progressed, refusing to condemn or criticize the ongoing armed aggression against Ukraine. It also remains ideologically aligned with Moscow in an anti-Western stance, with both professing their wish to see a more "multipolar world."

And despite a number of calls with Russian President Vladimir Putin and even a visit to Moscow in March, Chinese President Xi Jinping only called his Ukrainian counterpart for the first time in recent weeks.

During the call, Xi said he would send special representatives to Ukraine and hold talks with all parties on reaching a cease-fire and a peaceful resolution to what Beijing describes as a "crisis."

Attempts to broker a peace deal step up a gear this week with China's special representative on Eurasian affairs, Li Hui, set to visit Ukraine, Russia and several other European countries for talks "on a political settlement of the Ukraine crisis," China's foreign ministry said Friday.

There's little doubt that China wants the war between Russia and Ukraine to end, and soon. Beijing is widely believed to perceive the war's unpredictable nature, unknown endpoint and the global economic instability caused by the conflict as very undesirable side-effects.

But as it attempts to position itself as a honest broker that could bring about an end to one of the most bloodiest conflicts in Europe for decades — and one that has pitched Russia (and indeed, China, at times) against the wider West — there are question marks over China's perceived neutrality, diplomatic skills and, ultimately, its endgame as a mediator.

Political analysts and China watchers note that, ultimately, Beijing doesn't really care who "wins" the war — or what form a peace deal takes. What matters to Beijing, they say, is that it becomes the international partner that brings Russia and Ukraine to the negotiating table and brokers an end the war.

China's key focus

"China is more focused on winning the peace than on who wins the war between Russia and Ukraine," Ryan Hass, a China expert at the Brookings Institution and previously a senior Asia director in the Obama administration's National Security Council, told CNBC.

"Beijing would like to have a voice in determining the contours of any future European security architecture. Beijing also would like to be seen as vital to Ukraine's reconstruction and as a key actor in Europe's broader recovery from the conflict."

China is keen to build on recent successes in global diplomacy, particularly the mediation between Iran and Saudi Arabia that led the regional rivals to resume diplomatic relations and reopen embassies in each other's countries.

Another attempt by China at a round of global diplomacy between Russia and Ukraine is not without self-interest, analysts note.

"Of course, China is not stepping into this diplomatic foray out of altruistic concerns," Cheng Chen, professor of political science at the University at Albany, State University of New York, told CNBC Wednesday.

"As China increasingly positions itself as a superpower, it has every incentive to showcase its diplomatic strength as a global mediator, especially following its recent success in mediating between Iran and Saudi Arabia. In addition, China could further bind Russia to its side if it manages to broker a deal that saves Russia's face," she added.

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks with Chinese President Xi Jinping via phone line, in Kyiv on April 26, 2023.
Ukrainian Presidential Press Service | Reuters

Another happy byproduct of China's intervention would be that it could appeal to the Global South, a term generally used to identify developing countries in Latin America, Africa, Asia and Oceania, "which has largely not taken a side in the conflict, as well as some European powers that are unwilling to see a protracted war festering in Europe," Chen said. 

"To gain support from these countries, China wants to burnish its image as a peacemaker as opposed to the U.S.' approach of 'adding fuel to the fire'." 

Can China do it?

China's bid for peace broker is not a first in the war; Turkey has also positioned itself as a mediator between the warring sides, helping to broker a vital grain export deal and attempting early in the war to hold talks.

These broke down, however, with both sides having territorial "red lines" — essentially the giving up of lost (or gained) territory — that they could not cross. Since then, China has proposed a "peace plan" for Ukraine but it was seen to be lacking substance and concrete steps toward a cease-fire and settlement.

Whether China now has the diplomatic skills needed to bring both Russia and Ukraine back to the negotiating table is uncertain. China's general support of Russia won't have gone unnoticed in Kyiv, with analysts saying this damages the perception of Beijing as an "honest broker" from the start.

"There is a huge asymmetry between China-Russia and China-Ukraine relations," Alicja Bachulska, policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told CNBC Tuesday.

"It took 14 months for Xi Jinping to have a phone call with Zelenskyy, while at the same time China's top leadership had over 20 high-level interactions with Russian leadership," she noted.

"China hasn't recognized the aggressor — Russia — and keeps on blaming the U.S. and NATO for the war. Any kind of meaningful 'help' on China's side would require Beijing to recognize Ukraine's perspective on this war and Ukrainian agency, and this is highly unlikely given China's strategic interests in this war – namely to weaken the U.S.-led international system and discredit liberal democracies more broadly."

CNBC contacted China's foreign ministry for comment and is yet to receive a response.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping at a signing ceremony after their talks at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 21, 2023.
Vladimir Astapkovich | AFP | Getty Images

While China's approach to the warring parties has been imbalanced, its apparent closeness to Moscow can still be leveraged to benefit both sides, analysts note.

The war afforded China "an opportunity in global diplomacy," Ian Bremmer, founder and president of the Eurasia Group, said in emailed comments, noting that "Xi has more leverage over Putin than anyone else."

The University of Albany's Chen agreed that while China's perceived lack of neutrality could be a weakness, it could actually be its trump card.

"China is widely perceived as being too friendly to Russia to be truly 'neutral' when it comes to potentially mediating the conflict. However, exactly because China is one of Russia's few remaining international partners and has provided Russia with vital diplomatic and economic support since the invasion, it has the ability to bring Russia to the negotiating table and influence Russia's position in ending the conflict," Chen said.

China's foreign ministry said in a statement last Friday that since the beginning of the war, which it characterizes as a "crisis," China has held "an objective and just position and actively promoted talks for peace" and said its peace plan "takes into account the legitimate concerns of all parties."

"This upcoming visit by the Chinese representative again reflects China's commitment to promoting peace talks and staying on the side of peace," it said.

The world continued to experience the "spillover effects of the crisis," the ministry said, adding that it aimed to "continue to play a constructive role and build more international consensus on ending hostilities, starting peace talks and preventing escalation of the situation."

Any peace will be hard-won

No-one is underestimating the challenges any would-be peace broker has before them.

Fifteen months of war have hardened Ukraine and shown that it won't roll over to Russia, and for President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, the stakes are too high for him to concede territorial gains, particularly when it comes to areas where Russia is more ensconced like Crimea, which it annexed in 2014.

Ukraine says that it will not settle for anything less than the complete withdrawal of all Russian forces from occupied territory and the reinstatement of its territorial integrity, including Crimea and four other regions Russia declared it had annexed last year, although it still doesn't fully occupy any of them.

Ukrainian soldiers of the 80th brigade firing artillery in the direction of Bakhmut as the Russia-Ukraine war continues in Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine, on April 13, 2023.
Anadolu Agency | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

Ukraine will likely want to see how its current counteroffensive proceeds before taking China up on any offer to broker a peace deal, wary that any agreement could involve conceding territory to Russia.

Ukrainian analysts are certainly skeptical that China can, or will, help Ukraine.

"They will propose some ceasefire or peace agreement deal with Russian conditions and, of course, this is not preferable for us," Oleksandr Musiyenko, a military expert and head of the Centre for Military and Legal Studies in Kyiv, told CNBC.

Ukraine could only accept a peace agreement that respected the country's territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence, he added, and before any deal could be reached Ukraine's territories would have to be de-occupied by Russian forces.

Musiyenko said he didn't expect that "Chinese peace agreements and draft peace agreements will mean something good for us because they're looking on Ukraine from a Russian point of view."

"They are not objective in this case," he added.