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Xi’s “peace” plan for Ukraine: China “wins”

Crossed swords on a background of the Chinese flag, China's parliament, and an outline of a the globe

When Xi Jinping, on his first trip to Moscow since Russia invaded Ukraine, continues his meetings with Vladimir Putin on Tuesday, expect China's leader to talk a big game on "peace." It won’t be the type of peace that Ukraine — or the West — wants.

Yet, as far as Beijing is concerned, that’s beside the point.

Indeed, geopolitical success is in the eye of the beholder. That was definitely the case in the recent Middle East détente brokered by China, which re-established Iran-Saudi diplomatic ties broken since 2016. For Xi, whether the deal will result in anything meaningful in the long run matters less than clinching the photo-op.

The upshot is to be perceived as the decisive external player that achieved what America could not by getting the Iranians and Saudis to at least be on speaking terms again.

Similarly, this approach also means spinning the optics of its newfound role as a global peacemaker to a huge yet often overlooked audience by the US and its allies: the so-called "Global South" group of countries. Although only a few dozen refused to condemn the invasion at the UN, many more nations have no beef with Russia or Ukraine and have spent over a year waiting for someone to come up with a plan to end a war that they're paying for with economic ruin.

China's recent peace initiatives are thus "in line with aspirations by the silent majority in the rest of the world — countries that are not directly involved in conflicts" in Europe or the Middle East, says Zha Daojiong, a professor at Peking University's School of International Studies.

But that’s only part of a story that’s also about China’s broader role in the world, including its “complicated” relationship with Russia, its existential rivalry with America, and its year-long ghosting of Ukraine.

First, though, why has it taken Beijing so long to start playing global peacemaker? For one thing, until recently it was bad political timing at home.

Xi "was too busy putting out fires domestically at a crucial time for China and himself," says Brian Wong, a geopolitical strategist and co-founder of the Oxford Political Review. With the 20th Communist Party Congress and zero-COVID over, Xi feels he can pay more attention to foreign policy.

For another, China perhaps saw brokering the Iran-Saudi deal as low-hanging fruit that could serve as a dry run for its much more ambitious peace initiative in Ukraine. Wong believes that China seized the moment by leveraging Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's deep hatred of US President Joe Biden along with Beijing’s longstanding ties with Tehran to offer a Middle Eastern olive branch that few saw coming.

The Iran-Saudi deal had clear tangible benefits for China in the form of stable oil prices. What Xi would get from sealing peace in Ukraine is more symbolic but no less important: rehabilitate China's global image tarnished by COVID.

Meanwhile, China’s recent global diplomacy overtures are both strategic and tactical. After all, Xi has long wanted China to have a bigger role in the world. (He once pitched his country as the globalist leader countering an isolationist US under the Trump administration.) But the pandemic put all of that on the back burner.

Now, though, "China has sort of said: Okay, we're done with COVID. We are reengaging with the world. We're sending our leader back out there," explains Neysun Mahboubi, a research scholar at the University of Pennsylvania's Center for the Study of Contemporary China.

In that regard, he adds, China's strategy is not new. Yet, it comes across in a sharper way than it would have in 2019 because the geopolitical landscape has become more polarized — in no small part due to what China watchers refer to as Beijing’s “pro-Russia neutrality.”

At the same time, Mahboubi thinks the recent China-led peace initiatives are also a tactical response to the growing US-China rivalry. Xi, he believes, feels pressured by America to show that "China is a player on the world stage that can act in ways that the US cannot entirely anticipate or control."

And then there's Russia, China's rather unpredictable friend with benefits. The war in Ukraine — which initially caught Xi flat-footed — tested the limits of the bilateral partnership. But a year on, it has brought the two countries closer together by making them more dependent on each other (especially Russia on Chinese imports).

Beijing and Moscow have been forced to team up to push back together against the Western unity that the Russian invasion accomplished. And although the good personal vibes between Xi and Putin certainly help, the main driver is the mutual conviction that the US-led global security alliance is an existential threat to Russia and China.

"The closer America and Europe move towards one another, at least in the eyes of China, the more incentive there is on the part of China to want to absorb Russia into its orbit," says Wong.

Still, by pursuing peace in Ukraine, China might bite off more than it can chew. For Mahboubi, “the degree of difficulty is not even in the same ballpark” as the Iran-Saudi accord.

First, Beijing can hardly claim to be an honest broker — as it could between the Iranian and the Saudis — because it has provided diplomatic cover for Russia at the expense of Ukraine. Second, China's 12-point plan is a nonstarter for NATO since it doesn't call for Russia to withdraw from any occupied territories (which would have been a red line for Putin anyway).

Third, the two sides have little incentive to back down in the short term. Russia and China have high hopes for cracks in Western unity against the Kremlin widening in the coming months. Ukraine, for its part, is gearing up for its much-touted spring counteroffensive.

Still, if China is somehow able to figure that out and offer something that is acceptable to both sides, "that would obviously be incredibly impressive [...] and China would deserve all the plaudits," Mahboubi says. "I just think it's unlikely."

Also, what about dealing with Ukraine, which has been an afterthought for China? This week, Xi has reportedly scheduled a call with President Volodymyr Zelensky, which would be his first since the war began.

The thing is, Xi knows that Zelensky can't afford not to pick up the phone because only China has enough leverage over Russia to get Putin to back down. Indeed, Zelensky has been careful to avoid publicly criticizing China, has repeatedly asked China to get involved and said that he's open to Chinese support.

"I think Ukraine and Zelensky are more receptive toward China than many of us expect," says Wong. All these public statements are "a clear sign that the Ukrainians [...] genuinely want Chinese assistance because they see China as the only possible mediator."

Finally, Chinese success would box in the US — and possibly create a rift in Europe. If the Europeans suspected America was sabotaging the peace talks by urging Ukraine not to talk to Russia via China, the hand-wringing in Paris and Berlin could have real consequences for NATO unity.

At the end of the day, one unique thing China can offer as a mediator is an uber-pragmatic assessment: Let's not cry over spilled milk.

China "would urge Russia and Ukraine to consider leaving aside the question of who wronged whom for the moment — leave it to the future generations of their peoples — and give priority to stopping the conflict, which is debilitating to both sides," says Zha.

The upshot: Put yourself in China's shoes. No one believes you can broker peace in Ukraine, so no one will be surprised if you can't pull it off. But if you do, you can claim all the credit — and blame others if things go south.

Unlike with arming Russia, there’s no downside to playing peacemaker. Whatever happens, China can't lose. But how it ultimately wins might determine the trajectory and outcome of the war.


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