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The West should call China’s bluff on Ukraine

Xi Jinping might feel moved to be a productive mediator in this war.

Delegates applaud as Chinese President Xi Jinping arrives for the closing session of China's National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 11.Sam McNeil/Associated Press

The West’s next move to counter Russia on its invasion of Ukraine should be to get the East involved. That is, we should take China up on its half-hearted offers to help mediate the conflict.

“China is willing to continue playing a constructive role in urging peace talks and is willing when necessary to work together with the international community to launch required mediation,” Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said last week.

And after a virtual summit between Chinese President Xi Jinping, French President Emmanuel Macron, and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on March 8, the Chinese foreign ministry released a statement that highlighted Xi’s putative concern about the war and again expressed a desire to help solve the crisis.


“China will stay in communication and coordination with France, Germany and the EU and, in light of the needs of the parties involved, work actively together with the international community,” the statement said.

Now, one can certainly look at China’s Laodicean locution and see this as more posture than proffer. As Christopher Miller, co-director of the Russia and Eurasia program at Tufts University’s Fletcher School, noted in an interview, there’s little evidence to suggest that China is truly distraught about the war. To date, rather than Chinese efforts to stop the war, “we have seen a lot of China doing nothing to try to restrain Russia,” Miller said.

And yet, sometimes an unlikely avenue holds the most promise.

So far, Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine has been both countenanced and enabled by China, whose friendly posture allowed Russia to pull troops from its eastern border region to use in the battle with Ukraine. President Vladimir Putin, Russia’s sanguinary czar, has also counted on China to help protect his foul and flabby rhetorical underbelly. And China has, offering mealymouthed professions to the effect that the situation in Ukraine is unfortunate and that every country’s sovereignty should be respected, but so too should various nations’ security concerns, and that China favors a diplomatic solution, but that economic sanctions aren’t the way to pursue one, and otherwise fiddling as Ukraine burns.


Still, Xi appears increasingly uncomfortable with the position Putin has put China in. After all, it’s one thing to look momentarily away while an amoral autocrat executes what was supposed to be a lightning dismemberment of a neighboring nation. It’s quite another to watch as a bogged down but implacable invader slowly shells resisting Ukrainian cities into oblivion.

The West shouldn’t let Xi temporize on the sidelines any longer. The European Union should request, with US accedence, that China formally get involved as a mediator — and insist Xi press Putin to agree to a cease-fire as part of that role and process. The United Nations General Assembly could pass a resolution underscoring those requests.

Xi could refuse, but by doing so he’d reveal China’s mediation offers as counterfeit.

Or Xi could say yes only to have Putin say no. That, however, would insult China. Recall that on Feb. 4, Putin and Xi shared early valentines in Beijing, declaring the friendship between their countries “has no limits” or “forbidden areas.’” A Putin refusal would give the lie to those professions — and by disrespecting Xi, Putin would provide the rest of the world a fulcrum for prying apart their alliance.


But if Putin does accept, wouldn’t Xi-as-mediator merely advocate giving Russia everything Putin demands? That’s hardly a given. As the leader of a third-rate economic power, Putin seems content with his role as Stalin’s epigone, but Xi is deeply attuned to how he and an aspirational China are perceived by the world. Indeed, at his initiative, China is spending hundreds of billions on its belt and road initiative to provide other countries infrastructure, technological, and energy aid. His principal goal is to better connect China to Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Europe by land and sea routes, but he’s also hoping to enhance economic, political, and cultural connections.

Given that, he would have a lot at stake as a mediator. Thus it seems unlikely he’d further tarnish China’s image by comporting himself as little but an apologist for and accommodator of Russian barbarism. If he did, Xi would diminish himself in the eyes of the world — and Ukraine would reject any such solution he proposed.

His incentive, then, would be to help broker an arrangement that would give Putin a face-saving off-ramp, perhaps centering around a Ukrainian recognition of Russia’s snaffling of Crimea, along with a guarantee that Ukraine won’t strive to join NATO, in exchange for a Russian withdrawal and a Chinese-backed Russian promise of no further assaults on Ukraine.

There is no guarantee that anything will come of pressing China to make good on its professed intentions.


But in what otherwise looks like a long grinding war of misery and death, it’s at least worth a try.

Scot Lehigh is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at scot.lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.