China’s role in the Russia-Ukraine war has been following its script of a responsible great power, as I wrote recently in an article interpreting China’s views and actions on the conflict. China’s level of mediation activity is unprecedented in its recent diplomatic history, marked by frequent phone calls and online meetings between President Xi Jinping, Foreign Minister Wang Yi, and their counterparts in Russia, Ukraine, and Europe. As we watch the devastating situation in Ukraine and hope for an end to the tragedy soon, there naturally comes the question of whether China can do more to contribute to ending the military conflict.
Professor Stephen Roach at Yale University stimulated heated discussion when he wrote that “only China can stop Russia” and suggested three ways China can contribute: holding an emergency G-20 summit, sending humanitarian aid, and supporting Ukrainian reconstruction. China has expressed indirect but clear opposition to Russia’s military action, and China is sending humanitarian aid to Ukraine. For the process of conflict resolution, this article suggests some other options that Chinese diplomacy could pursue, based on its record of conflict mediation.
Since the war in Darfur in 2003, and in particular since the beginning of the Libyan crisis in 2011, China has played an increased role in conflict mediation and U.N. peacekeeping. The precedents provide hints as to what China could potentially do. These past example also help dispel the view that China will not play a more active role than we have seen before, based on the assumption that Beijing would not step out of its comfort zone. The options for China’s mediation in the Russia-Ukraine war include: initiating a U.N. process on the status of Ukraine or Eastern Ukraine followed by a possible peacekeeping mission; sending a special envoy for the Ukraine conflict; and pushing Russia-U.S.-Europe talks at the U.N. Security Council (UNSC). Finally, a brief discussion on the option of imposing economic sanctions on Russia will be offered.
First, China can initiate a proposal or roadmap for resolution of the Russia-Ukraine conflict at the U.N. Although China’s way of mediation has mostly involved pushing conflicting parties to engage in dialogue and stop violence, China has also tabled draft roadmaps or formats for peaceful settlements in the past. For example, in response to an escalated Israel-Palestine conflict in 2021, China advocated a ceasefire, humanitarian assistance, obligatory UNSC action, and the “two-state solution.” China was then the rotating chair of the UNSC, but it can support the current rotating chair UAE with such a proposal for Ukraine, which would be more timely than waiting for China’s turn in August. The content of the proposal could address the status of Ukraine as a neutral country or declaring Eastern Ukraine as a non-military zone, as Ukraine has recently “cooled down” over its potential NATO membership. Even if such a draft resolution is voted against by the United States and some other countries, the split in votes can send a message from the international community to conflicting parties about their choices.
The implementation of neutral status or a non-military zone in Ukraine can be monitored by a U.N. peacekeeping force that is includes Chinese and European peacekeepers. Negotiation between Ukraine and Russia over conflict resolution could well get stuck on this point, but a taskforce consisting of countries “friendly” to both sides and authorized by the U.N. can grant more neutrality and credibility to the monitoring mechanism. Although a relatively new contributor of combat forces in U.N. operations, China has gained experience in U.N. peacekeeping since 1990 and is today the biggest personnel contributor among the U.N. Security Council permanent members and second biggest financial contributor to U.N. peacekeeping. Despite having experienced setbacks in South Sudan, China’s active participation in U.N. peacekeeping is set to continue.
Second, China can send a special envoy to push peace talks among Ukraine, Russia, and Europe. China has sent special envoys to conflict zones, and it does not seem impeded by the risk of not succeeding. In 2013, China sent a special envoy to South Sudan as violence erupted in the newly-established country. In 2016, China dispatched an envoy to Iran and Saudi Arabia when tensions escalated between the two countries. In January 2022, China announced it would appoint a special envoy for the Horn of Africa to help with peace and development in the region, where conflicts have erupted in Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan, and Somalia.
During the Ukraine conflict, it is notable that China’s diplomatic efforts have focused on Russia, Ukraine, Germany, France, and sometimes the EU, which shows China’s hope for a possible solution among these parties. A resolution without the United States would be a significant blow to U.S. credibility, as China has largely blamed Washington for the conflict. A special Chinese envoy to Ukraine and Russia or to Eastern Europe for the Ukraine conflict could facilitate face-to-face talks and complement telephone and online meetings at a higher level. A resolution without the U.S. would also become a step in European strategic independence, which China has been advocating during this conflict.
Third, China can push Russia-U.S.-Europe talks at UNSC emergency meetings. China sees the Ukraine conflict as a proxy war in which the United States got others to go to war on its behalf, thus turning Ukraine into a frontline of major power rivalry. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has said to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken that China encourages the U.S., NATO, EU, and Russia to engage in equal-footed dialogue. This position is well-explained by Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying’s words: “Whoever tied the knot is responsible for untying it.” China upholds the U.N.’s coordinating position in resolving international conflicts, and the UNSC is supposed to be the ultimate international mechanism that handles issues of significance for global peace.
Finally, on the question of economic sanctions, several others and I have argued that China cannot shield Russia from Western sanctions. China is also unlikely to impose sanctions on Russia, although Chinese companies and banks may try to comply with Western sanctions to avoid financial risks or being punished. China is a significant economic partner for Russia but is not holding Moscow’s lifeline. In 2020, China imported 31 percent of Russia’s crude oil and 5 percent of Russia’s natural gas. In comparison, OECD-Europe imported 48 percent of Russian oil and 72 percent of Russian gas. Europe has not followed the U.S. ban on Russian oil and gas, and even if it does, China will not be the only or even biggest buyer. There is a significant existing and potential market for Russian energy, metals, and grains among the countries that abstained from or did not vote on the draft U.N. resolution condemning Russia’s invasion, and the financial ties between Russia and the Middle East as well as tax havens could well be beyond the reach of sanctions. Furthermore, limiting or cutting off economic ties with Russia would affect China’s own economic growth in a critical year for post-COVID recovery and political leadership consolidation, in particular given its worsened relations with the West.
China is in general against economic sanctions, but it is familiar with using economic measures for foreign policy objectives. Chinese companies and banks also try to comply with Western sanctions to avoid financial risks. After all, the U.S. and EU are China’s most important markets and investors. China has used subtle economic measures on Iran and North Korea to pressure them to give up their nuclear programs. It reportedly slowed down oil and gas investments in Iran after the United States imposed unilateral sanctions on the latter in 2010. In 2018, China reduced its trade and investment relations with Iran again after the Trump administration withdrew from the Iran nuclear talks and placed new sanctions on Iran. China also stopped the oil supply to North Korea temporarily after the latter conducted nuclear tests and brought Pyongyang back to the negotiation table.
But compared with Iran and North Korea, Russia is a much bigger economy with more nuclear warheads and a bigger population on China’s border. If China adopted the policy of limiting or reducing economic ties with Russia, the most significant impact on Russia would be more political than economic – Russia would look and feel much more isolated.
Chinese official media have published a translated transcript of Professor John Mearsheimer’s recent talk about the crisis, in which he argues that it is the United States that bears the main responsibility. Mearsheimer also cautioned about the danger of pushing a nuclear great power into a corner. Both these points coincide with Beijing’s views as well. China’s unprecedented active mediation in the Russia-Ukraine war shows that China is genuinely worried about escalation to a bigger war at the cost of more civilian lives, global economic stability, and even global peace. We will now see whether China seizes the window of opportunity to play an even more active role in resolving the biggest crisis in the post-World War II world.