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News Analysis

China takes a backseat in international diplomacy over Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping met in Beijing in February.ALEXEI DRUZHININ/Photographer: Alexei Druzhinin/A

China has repeatedly called for peace talks in Ukraine. What it has not done is press Russia to negotiate an end to a war that has already cost thousands of lives, displaced millions, and threatened to disrupt the world’s economy and even food security.

Despite calls from other world leaders to play a more proactive role, China has instead tried to keep its distance. It has urged peace but not stepped up to mediate or organize talks, leaving such efforts to far smaller powers, including France, Turkey, and Israel.

Intervening more forcefully, in the view of officials in Beijing, is fraught with political and economic risks that the country’s leader, Xi Jinping, appears reluctant to take. Instead, it has sought to walk a careful line between the international outrage over Russia’s invasion and support for one of its most powerful partners.

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The result has been to leave China, diplomatically, on the sidelines of the conflict, unable or unwilling to wield influence commensurate with its growing economic and military might.

“If Xi truly wants the crisis to end,” John Delury, a professor of Chinese studies at Yonsei University in Seoul, “then the flat-footed response testifies to China’s impotence in world politics, despite decades of rising to great power status.”

Officials in Beijing say they do want to see the carnage stop. In a video conference call with President Biden last Friday, Xi endorsed a two-part approach: a cease-fire, followed by humanitarian aid, according to Chinese officials.

It is not clear, however, whether Xi has communicated that to the Russian president, Vladimir Putin. They spoke the day after the war began Feb. 24 but not since. Xi has yet to speak with Ukraine’s leader, Volodymyr Zelensky.

As the fighting has dragged on, and with it the toll in human suffering, China’s diplomats have been forced into increasingly contorted defenses of Beijing’s stance.

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They have touted humanitarian aid to Ukraine but refused to criticize Putin’s government for causing the humanitarian crisis. China’s ambassador to Ukraine, Fan Xianrong, told officials in Lviv that China was “a force of good” for the country and praised the Ukrainian unity in the face of a war that officials in Beijing will not describe as an invasion.

China’s avoidance of any criticism of Russia undermines its claim to be a neutral party.

“Don’t be naive,” China’s ambassador to the United States, Qin Gang, said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” Sunday when pressed to explain why China refused to criticize Russia’s invasion. “Condemnation doesn’t solve the problem.”

China’s stance has already hardened views toward it in Europe, which has shown remarkable unity against the Russian invasion before a planned summit between the European Union and China on April 1. It has also prompted warnings from the United States that explicit economic or military assistance to Russia would prompt harsh punishment against China.

China’s policy is bound by the deep, even personal, relationship Xi has forged with the Russian leader. The war has strained but so far not broken those bonds.

Chinese officials also share Putin’s view of the United States, accusing it of fanning the flames that ignited the war by expanding NATO. They have also criticized the American use of economic and trade sanctions to punish Russia.

In the zero-sum calculation that drives policymaking, pressing Russia to make concessions would effectively bolster the position of the United States and its allies. At the same time, China cannot afford to sever its ties with them, either.

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“China does not have any other partner of the same strategic weight as Russia, who shares his distrust of the current international order,” said Bilahari Kausikan, Singapore’s former ambassador to Russia and the United Nations. “And that’s the bottom line. They won’t do anything that would fundamentally jeopardize the relationship with Russia or undermine Putin’s grip on power.”

On the UN Security Council, where China is one of the five permanent, veto-wielding powers, it has often played more of a supporting role than a leading one. In many cases, that means joining Russia. When the war began, however, China was one of three of the 15 members that abstained from a resolution that condemned the invasion. (Russia vetoed it.) That raised some expectations that a crack might open between the two countries, but since then, China has continued to provide diplomatic cover for Russia.

Last week, Xue Hanqin, China’s judge on the International Court of Justice, the UN’s top judicial body, joined a Russian judge in dissenting from a ruling last week calling for Russia to halt its military campaign in Ukraine.

In her dissent, Xue wrote that a provisional ruling on Ukraine’s claim of a genocide unfolding would “not contribute to the resolution of the crisis in Ukraine.”

In other international forums, too, China has gone so far as to discourage multilateral peace efforts, dismissing an appeal by Ukraine to bring up the war for debate in the ministerial meetings of the Group of 20 major economies, being held this year in Indonesia.

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“The G-20 is the premier forum for international economic cooperation, not an appropriate platform to discuss political security issues such as Ukraine,” a spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Zhao Lijian, said. The organization, he added, “should stick to its mandate.”

China may find its position increasingly untenable as the human and economic toll rises in Ukraine and beyond. The European Union’s chief diplomat has called on China to do more. So did the foreign minister of Singapore, which has maintained friendly relations with Beijing.

Others, though, see the war as an opportunity for China, if handled carefully.

At a recent meeting of Chinese foreign policy and security scholars in Beijing to discuss the crisis in Ukraine, at least some concluded that there was “no urgency in bringing about an end to the war,” according to a summary of their discussion that was posted on a Chinese website. China also lacked experience in leading global negotiations, some of the scholars argued at the meeting organized by MacroChina, an economic research group based in Beijing. (The summary was later removed.)

“The war is sapping the national strength of the old powers of the United States, Europe and Russia,” the summary described the scholars as saying. “China needs to watch the fire from the opposite bank and stay out of the war.”

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