China Wants to Thread the Needle on Ukraine

Beijing Struggles to Balance Its Ties to Russia and Europe

On April 21, China’s ambassador to France, Lu Shaye, proclaimed that whether Crimea is part of Ukraine “depends on how the problem is perceived.” He added more fuel to the fire by saying that “ex-Soviet countries don’t have an effective status in international law”—questioning not only the sovereignty of Ukraine but also that of over a dozen countries that were part of the Soviet Union. These inflammatory remarks provoked widespread condemnation, with 80 European lawmakers urging the French government to expel Lu. Beijing tried to downplay the situation, stating that Lu was only expressing his personal views.

Five days after Lu made his remarks, Chinese President Xi Jinping went forward with a long-promised phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Although some observers welcomed this call as an effort to contain the damage from Lu’s comments, others suspected that the ambassador’s remarks had been designed to probe how Europe would react if China were to officially embrace his positions. Following Xi’s call, Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang visited Germany, France, and Norway in early May. And this week, Li Hui, China’s new special representative to deal with the Ukraine conflict, will visit Ukraine, Poland, France, Germany, and Russia to discuss how to achieve “a political settlement to the Ukraine crisis.”

These events have thrown a spotlight on Beijing’s struggles to balance its conflicting objectives in Ukraine. China aims to prioritize its relations with Russia, its strongest strategic partner, which has biased its position on the conflict in favor of its neighbor. At the same time, Beijing wishes to ensure that Europe does not join an anti-China bloc—an increasingly important goal given Chinese policymakers’ growing pessimism that they can prevent the deterioration of U.S.-Chinese relations. These concerns have led China to try to cast itself as neutral and limit some of its support for Russia. As the war drags on, however, Beijing is finding that this position is increasingly difficult to sustain and that the conflict is weakening its closest strategic partner while complicating China’s security environment.

As a result, Beijing has gotten off the sidelines and has begun to offer its good offices to bring both sides to the negotiating table. It has articulated a vision for global security, issued a position paper on Ukraine, and appointed a special representative to engage all parties involved in the conflict. It also appears to be exploring ways to recast the Ukraine conflict as one driven by a long and complex history in order to undercut external aid to Ukraine and defend Russian interests. In taking this more active role, however, China’s efforts are likely to be high-profile but slow in delivering results. China is likely to do just enough to cast itself as a helpful and responsible global leader but not enough to be held accountable for achieving an end to the Ukraine conflict on terms that would be fair and acceptable to both sides.

Shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine last year, leading Chinese experts provided a range of assessments about the war’s impact and trajectory. Many initially assessed that the conflict would be brief, and some even predicted that it would have no geopolitical implications beyond Europe.

Even as it became clear that there would be no swift resolution to the conflict, the conventional wisdom in Beijing was that China should maintain its hands-off role. One month into the war, a group of top Chinese strategists from different academic disciplines, including the authors of Unrestricted Warfare, an influential 1999 book on new non-military and non-lethal methods of warfare, gathered informally in Beijing to analyze the impact of the Ukraine conflict on the global order. They assessed that the conflict was unlikely to end soon and that China could benefit from a prolonged fight. China should maintain its neutrality, they argued, in order to turn the crisis into an opportunity to recast its relationships with Russia, the United States, and Europe, all of which would suffer mounting costs as the war dragged on.

The Chinese strategists advocated for providing secret assistance to Russia to ensure that it could sustain the fight and would not collapse. However, they counseled against drifting entirely into Moscow’s camp. These experts believed that the conflict could provide Beijing with a chance to partially smooth ties with the United States, particularly since there was a greater chance of working with U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration than with a potential future Trump administration.

They also recommended that Beijing play an active diplomatic role in the conflict’s aftermath. China should advocate positions that most countries support—such as respecting sovereignty and abandoning a Cold War mentality—to position itself to shape the international response in ways beneficial to it. They also pressed China to take on new responsibilities, including acting as an arbitrator and rules-maker for this emerging international order.

Despite China’s efforts, most of the developed world viewed its position on Ukraine as deeply pro-Russia.
Although it is not clear if China’s leadership fully agreed with these experts’ positions, many of their suggestions have been embraced by Beijing. China has tried, for example, to position itself as neutral in the Ukraine conflict. The government’s position paper on Ukraine, published in February, also included these Chinese experts’ specific points about respecting countries’ sovereignty and abandoning a Cold War mentality.

The strategists’ cautious optimism about Beijing’s ability to turn the conflict to its advantage, however, soon collided with reality. Despite China’s efforts, most of the developed world viewed its position on Ukraine as deeply pro-Russia. Many Chinese analysts worried that this perception could poison China’s reputation in Europe, causing governments and the public to see China as an enemy. Similarly, U.S.-Chinese relations have worsened even as the Ukraine conflict has dragged on. China’s response to the war in Ukraine also heightened global concern about Beijing’s possible intentions to use force against Taiwan, thereby strengthening international support for Taipei—and aggravating China’s own security environment.

By the middle of 2022, Chinese experts saw the prolonged conflict in Ukraine as harmful to Chinese interests. The dominant perspective within the country was that the fighting represented a NATO-backed proxy war to weaken Russia, China’s friend in countering Western suppression and encirclement. Many argued that the United States was the conflict’s main beneficiary: it was learning valuable lessons in propping up Ukraine’s fight, including by leveraging coercive sanctions against Russia, and could use these same tactics against China in the future. At the same time, the war had allowed Washington to strengthen and revitalize its alliances in Europe and beyond. It was clear that the Ukraine conflict had weakened Russia, Chinese experts believed, but it was less certain that the United States or Europe had suffered equally.

Beijing’s concerns over the Ukraine conflict intensified over the past year. Not only was Russia facing strong Ukrainian military resistance and running low on weapons and munitions but Chinese experts were also concerned about the possibility of direct U.S.-Russian confrontation and nuclear escalation. These two scenarios could make it impossible for China to stay on the sidelines. Chinese analysts judge that Russia could use nuclear weapons as a last resort and if it felt at risk of losing the war, and Chinese media reported on Russia’s repeated nuclear threats and its October 2022 drills involving its strategic nuclear forces. From Beijing’s perspective, however, the threat of nuclear use does not come only from Russia. China believes that NATO has also engaged in nuclear saber-rattling, including through a nuclear deterrence exercise that occurred at the same time as Russia’s nuclear drills.

Diplomacy could allow Beijing to deflect criticism.
These concerns are evident in Xi’s escalating rhetoric about the Ukraine war. When hosting German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Beijing in November, Xi stated that the international community should “oppose the use of or the threat to use nuclear weapons, advocate that nuclear weapons cannot be used and that nuclear wars must not be fought, and prevent a nuclear crisis in Eurasia.” Later that month, in a discussion with Biden in Bali about the Ukrainian crisis, he said that “conflicts and wars produce no winner” and “confrontation between major countries must be avoided.”

Chinese fears about Ukraine are reflected in the stories covered by the country’s media. In December, Chinese newspapers shared Russian expert assessments that the Ukraine conflict risked leading to a direct military confrontation between the United States and Russia in 2023. Chinese media also saw the mid-March incident in which a Russian warplane downed a U.S. surveillance drone as validation of these concerns, and reprinted Western analyses that the episode marked the first direct physical contact between the U.S. and Russian militaries.

At the same time, Beijing detected cracks in Western support for Ukraine. A report published in late February by the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, a leading research institution housed under China’s Ministry of State Security, assessed that Western leaders “may object to long-term aid to Ukraine and grow tired of it.” It noted that leaders in Germany, France, and the United Kingdom had begun pressuring Zelensky to negotiate with Russia, and there were also voices in the United States calling for an end of aid to Ukraine and the need to reach a peace settlement. Echoing this line of thinking in his April call with Zelensky, Xi noted that “rational thinking and voices [are] now on the rise” with regard to the conflict and that it is therefore important “to seize the opportunity and build up favorable conditions” for a settlement.

These developments, coupled with continuous international pressure on China to not provide lethal aid to Russia, led Chinese Politburo member Wang Yi to warn at the Munich Security Conference in February that the conflict could be “escalated and protracted.” He repeated Xi’s line that there are no winners in wars and added that the Ukraine conflict “should not go on anymore.” Shortly afterward, Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang said that China was deeply worried that the conflict could “spiral out of control”—the first time Beijing had used that phrase.

These shifting assessments have caused Beijing to alter its approach toward the conflict in Ukraine. Whereas it previously stayed on the sidelines, China has cautiously stepped into the arena in recent months. In particular, the Chinese government has aimed to portray itself as a key actor that can solve international conflicts. On February 21, it released its Global Security Initiative Concept Paper, which laid out Xi’s vision for how to solve the security challenges the world faces. The paper promised to “eliminate the root causes of international conflicts” and “improve global security governance.” It also criticized Washington’s extensive global influence, vowing to change the fact that regional and global tensions have “occur[red] frequently” under U.S. leadership.

Three days later, China released a position paper on Ukraine that laid out a dozen broad principles for a political settlement to the conflict. The paper echoed Moscow’s talking points, even declining to mention that Russia had invaded Ukraine and violated its sovereignty. But it did include points—such as the need to respect sovereignty and territorial integrity—that appeared to account for Ukraine’s interests.

China scored a diplomatic victory in another part of the world during this period. On March 10, Saudi Arabia and Iran announced an agreement to restore full diplomatic relations. This breakthrough, they claimed, was achieved due to “the noble initiative” of Xi and represented the first success of the Global Security Initiative. In reality, China did not initiate this effort—the United States encouraged Saudi Arabia and Iran to begin discussions in 2021. At most, China provided a hospitable venue for the two countries to hash out their differences and represented a neutral party that could convince each side to operate in good faith. But it is possible that this accomplishment made Xi overconfident about what he can achieve on other diplomatic fronts.

Against this backdrop, Xi intensified his efforts in Ukraine. In early March, he hosted Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko, a close ally of the Kremlin, and then travelled to Moscow to meet Putin himself. In late March and April, Xi met in person with a number of world leaders to discuss Ukraine—seeking to engage not only with European voices but also to elevate the views of key developing countries. This included Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who called for a “G-20 of peace” composed of of neutral countries to play a leading diplomatic role. Then in late April, Xi called Zelensky at Ukraine’s request and designated a special representative to engage with all parties on how to reach a political solution to the conflict.

Overall, China likely views its diplomatic efforts as affording it a greater role to determine the course of the war, which it views as being manipulated and prolonged by the United States. Diplomacy could allow Beijing to deflect criticism, to try to set a new narrative about the conflict, and to potentially shape the outcome in ways that would be beneficial to it. China could also use its ability to sit down with all parties as a bargaining chip to pressure other countries to respect its interests. It’s possible that French President Emmanuel Macron’s public declaration in April that it is not in France’s interest to support the U.S. agenda to defend Taiwan was at least partially motivated by Paris’s desire for China to play a constructive role in Ukraine.

The degree to which China can leverage its diplomatic efforts to its advantage depends on how exactly the country seeks to proceed. Beijing has not offered specific proposals on how to resolve the conflict in Ukraine. And if its approach during the six-party talks on North Korea or its mediation between Saudi Arabia and Iran serve as a guide to its efforts in Ukraine, nobody should expect China to put forward creative diplomatic proposals. While Beijing may be able to get both sides to the negotiating table, it has a long way to go if it wants to convince the international community that it is truly an honest broker.

Although Beijing emphasizes its seemly neutral push for finding a path toward peace through direct dialogue, its portrayal of the United States and NATO as fueling the conflict by providing arms to Ukraine is a crucial aspect of its messaging. This narrative is aimed at rallying the global South and seeks to undercut U.S. and European arguments that the international community should support Ukraine against the Russian invasion.

The reality is that Ukraine cannot sustain the fight if its external political, economic, and military support dries up. The United States and Europe have already asked countries that have been on the sidelines to help replenish Ukraine’s weapons stockpiles, and China’s push for dialogue could disproportionately impact Kyiv if countries become wary of doing so. At the same time, China’s call for an immediate cease-fire could allow Russia to consolidate its gains at a time when it still controls significant portions of Ukrainian territory.

Beijing has not shown any willingness to impose costs on Moscow.
China’s evolving foreign policy discourse is also not favorable to Ukraine. Chinese experts are working to resolve the contradiction between Beijing’s emphasis on respect for sovereignty and its refusal to describe the conflict as a Russian invasion of Ukraine. Some Chinese scholars have suggested that sovereignty and territorial integrity should be viewed as only one of 12 core principles for China to balance—in other words, not the most important one, or a value that needs to be respected completely.

But if China wanted to maintain its position that the principle of sovereignty and territorial integrity is nonnegotiable, then Lu Shaye’s questioning of the sovereignty of post-Soviet states might be the solution. It is telling that despite the international condemnation of Lu’s remarks, Beijing has yet to publicly reprimand him in any way beyond disavowing his comments. Last week, China’s Foreign Ministry even came to his defense by denying the “false information” that Lu was recalled to China.

Lu’s comments are actually in line with the spirit of two Chinese talking points: that Russia had “legitimate security concerns” to use force against Ukraine and that the Ukraine crisis was caused by “profound historical backgrounds and complex realistic reasons.” In other words, Beijing could argue that Russia’s 2022 invasion did not actually start the conflict in Ukraine. If that is the case, Russia is not the only aggressor, and resolving the conflict requires going further back in history to a time when Ukraine (and Crimea) was part of the Soviet Union. This could make it easier to push for a political settlement where Russia retains control of the parts of Ukraine it has conquered.

China does not need to argue that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was morally right— and such arguments are likely to be rejected by the West. China just needs to obscure the causes of the war in order to cast doubt on the moral high ground of the United States and Europe. It is possible that Beijing is banking on growing Western division and fatigue as the conflict drags on, which could allow countries from the global South to increase pressure on the West to end the war. As Russian and Ukrainian capabilities are further exhausted, both sides could find themselves looking for a way out of the war.

The international community should not place too much hope on China’s mediation efforts, nor alter any existing efforts to deter Russian aggression or to create conditions for ending the conflict. China’s efforts are likely to be high in profile but slow and questionable in substance.

Beijing is aware that it will be incredibly difficult to reach any type of political settlement and does not want to be blamed if its efforts are unsuccessful. At the same time, it wants credit for any progress that could be made. These dueling tendencies are evident in Xi’s statement that China “did not create the Ukraine crisis, nor is it a party to the crisis” and his claim that Beijing cannot “sit idly by” as the conflict escalates.

Beijing has also not shown any willingness to impose costs on Moscow if the Kremlin refuses to follow its diplomatic lead. This March, Xi and Putin issued a joint statement in which they rejected the deployment of nuclear weapons abroad. But when Putin declared days later that he would place nuclear weapons in Belarus, China largely avoided criticizing him.

China will proceed cautiously. It will be wary of offering anything more than bringing Ukraine and Russia to the negotiation table. Indeed, Beijing will most likely focus on balancing its competing priorities—on the one hand maintaining its relationship with Moscow and on the other not entirely alienating European countries—by doing just enough to deflect criticism of its role. China wants to show that it is helpful, but it does not want to risk being accused of pushing one side’s interests over another’s in the diplomatic process.

If Beijing does eventually offer any concrete proposals to settle the war, there is a risk that even seemingly neutral proposals, such as freezing the fighting in place, could prioritize the interests of Russia. Beijing is signaling that it wants to play a more active diplomatic role, but the reality is that it is operating in an arena where it has little experience.