Could China play a mediating role in the war in Ukraine?

A three-way video call on March 8 with Chinese President Xi Jinping and European leaders Francois Macron and Olaf Scholz raises the prospect of a diplomatic move that would have been unthinkable just weeks ago: China could mediate in the Ukrainian crisis, seizing diplomatic ground a peacemaker. Over the past decade, China’s territorial ambitions in the South China Sea, intervention in Hong Kong and border skirmishes with India have left it in relative diplomatic isolation. But the Ukraine crisis opens up the opportunity for a diplomatic revolution that could position China as a peacemaker.

The tragic combination of American exaggeration and Russian overreaction has left the world in a diplomatic vacuum. By seeking to extend NATO to the Russian border, Washington persuaded Moscow that its objective was the strategic encirclement of Russia. By abandoning the Minsk II framework, Kiev convinced the Russians that Ukraine had become America’s cat’s paw. France and Germany, which supported the Minsk Compromise, failed to live up to their principles in the face of American opposition. The outcome, as I wrote on March 4, recalls the blunders of the European powers at the advent of the First World War.

This opens up a mediation opportunity for China, because it is not compromised by the mistakes that led to the crisis, and because it has good relations with the antagonists and a working dialogue with Europe. . The strange man, of course, would be the United States.

In a telephone conversation on March 1, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba asked his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi to mediate in the crisis, saying (according to the official Chinese version) that “China played a constructive role on this issue and Ukraine is ready to step up communication”. with the Chinese side. He looked forward to China’s mediation efforts for the ceasefire. The idea of ​​Chinese mediation is gaining ground in Europe.

As Russia’s “strategic partner” and Ukraine’s key trading partner, China is the only world power with strong relations between the two sides in the conflict, as European commentators pointedly note. “When will China stop Putin? wrote Eduard Steiner in the center-right German newspaper Die Welt on March 8.

American diplomacy is backed into a corner. Washington has pledged to defeat the Russians in Ukraine and smash the Russian economy, supplying high-tech weapons to the Ukrainian armed forces and imposing “nuclear” sanctions, including the seizure of more than half of the 630 billion dollars of foreign investment from Russia. foreign exchange reserves. This surpasses all economic measures taken by the United States against the Soviet Union during the Cold War and has no peacetime precedent. Washington’s position leaves it nowhere to go: if punitive sanctions and arms provisions fail to break Russia’s will, the only possible outcome will be a permanent stalemate.

From Europe’s perspective, the American response was a case of overreach. Chancellor Scholz as well as British Prime Minister Boris Johnson declared on March 7 that they would not impose sanctions on the sale of Russian hydrocarbons to Europe, unlike President Biden, who announced on March 8 the stop US purchases of Russian oil. oil in U.S. trade rose $9 a barrel, or 8%, thanks to Biden’s action. Europeans are already paying around ten times the price of natural gas in February 2021, and the potential economic damage to Europe is disastrous.

During the video meeting with Macron and Scholz, Xi Jinping said that “China appreciates the efforts of France and Germany to mediate the situation in Ukraine, and is willing to maintain communication and coordination with France, Germany and the EU, and to play an active role”. role with the international community based on the needs of all parties involved,” according to a report from the Chinese website

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin pose for a group photo during the G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan on June 28, 2019. AFP via Getty/Dominique Jacovides

The Chinese news site added, “Xi Jinping stressed that we should jointly support the Russian-Ukrainian peace talks, help both sides maintain the momentum of negotiations, overcome difficulties and continue talks to reach results and peace”. He called for “maximum restraint to avoid a large-scale humanitarian crisis”, adding that China “stands ready to provide additional humanitarian aid to Ukraine”. We must work together to reduce the negative impact of the crisis. The sanctions now in place “will impact the stability of global finance, energy, transportation and supply chains, and bring down the global economy.”

Xi added that China will support France and Germany “to act on behalf of Europe’s own interests, consider Europe’s enduring security, adhere to strategic independence, and promote the construction of a framework for balanced, effective and sustainable European security”. China is also happy to see a dialogue between equals between Europe, Russia, the United States and NATO.

These are generalities, of course. What matters is the relationship: China has close ties with Russia and Ukraine, described as “China’s new bridge to Europe” in one report. Chinese investors have poured $2 billion a year into Ukraine since the now-beleaguered country was the first to sign the Belt and Road Initiative Declaration of Intent in 2017. Chinese imports from Ukraine nearly doubled to nearly $8 billion in 2020 from just over $4. billion in 2019.

The Die Welt report notes that China’s abstention on last week’s UN Security Council resolution denouncing Russia “was rated as a success against Putin in Western diplomatic circles. “Other Chinese actions were also amazing,” the German daily added, citing Chinese Ambassador to the UN Zhang Jun’s statement that “Ukraine should be a communication bridge between the East and the West and not the front line of great power rivalry”.

“The fact is,” Die Welt added, “that so far China has profited from every conflict between Moscow and Europe, and its share of Russia’s foreign trade has fallen from 13.5% to 16 % between 2013 and 2020…but now the war has driven up commodity prices, especially for oil and gas.And because the safety of transporting goods from China to Europe via the rail system Russian cause concern, the trains on the Chinese side are not loaded.

European support is essential for Chinese mediation efforts. The only possible compromise would be a return to the Minsk II framework, initially proposed by Russia, supported by France and Germany, and rejected by the United States. Ukraine would renounce its application for NATO membership and accept the quasi-independence of the Russian-speaking regions of Donetsk and Luhansk adjacent to Russia. Crimea would remain Russian. Substantial commitments of reconstruction assistance from China and the European Community would be required. Europe would lift sanctions against Russia. Both Ukraine and Russia would declare some sort of victory and display their magnanimity and generosity in the compromise.

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