China walks a tightrope, searching for a Ukraine peace deal that doesn’t hurt its ally Russia

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Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping at a signing ceremony after their talks at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 21, 2023.

Vladimir Astapkovich | AFP | Getty Images

China faces a “daunting” challenge when it comes to attempting to broker a peace deal between Ukraine and Russia, according to political analysts, with the country walking a diplomatic tightrope between appearing neutral enough to gain Kyiv’s trust and ensuring any deal doesn’t hurt its allies in Moscow.

Beijing — which has sent representatives to Ukraine, Russia and several European countries this week in a bid to lay the groundwork for peace talks — has a particular vested interest in Moscow not looking like it has been “defeated” in any settlement as this could backfire on Beijing, analysts note.

“A total Russian defeat does not serve Chinese interest, especially if it leads to [President Vladimir] Putin’s demise,” Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund (GMF) of the United States, told CNBC Tuesday.

“Russia is an increasingly important partner for [Chinese President] Xi Jinping. There is no other country that can help weaken U.S. leadership in the world and revise the international order,” she added.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and China’s President Xi Jinping leave after a reception following their talks at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 21, 2023.

Pavel Byrkin | Afp | Getty Images

China is stepping up efforts to bring Russia and Ukraine to the negotiating table with China’s special representative on Eurasian affairs, Li Hui, visiting Europe this week for talks “on a political settlement of the Ukraine crisis,” China’s foreign ministry said.

Russia launched its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 and after months of attritional warfare, the conflict is poised to enter a new phase, with Western-backed Ukraine expected to launch a massive counter-offensive to take back occupied territory in the east and south of the country.

China is widely considered to have backed Russia during the war, refusing to condemn the invasion and committing to deepening its strategic cooperation with the country, although Moscow is seen by most analysts as the subservient, junior partner in the relationship.

One of the main factors that binds China and Moscow is a shared and deeply-held antipathy and distrust of the West, with both critical of the U.S.’ dominance in global affairs.

Against this backdrop, Moscow and Beijing have remained conspicuously close throughout the war with Xi and Putin holding numerous calls and a state visit in March. In contrast, Xi only called his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelenskyy for the first time in April.

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks with Chinese President Xi Jinping via phone line, in Kyiv on April 26, 2023.

Ukrainian Presidential Press Service | Reuters

There’s no doubt that China wants the war to end, seeing it as an unwelcome crisis that is affecting the global economy. But it also contains the potential for political danger for China as well, with a defeated Russia seen to be very vulnerable to political instability, disorder and even regime change.

As such, China’s move to broker peace between Russia and Ukraine is not seen as an altruistic one but motivated by self-interest. That interest stretches to ensuring its neighbor and ally Russia doesn’t look like it has been humiliated and “defeated” in any peace deal with Ukraine. By managing the negotiation process, China can see that it doesn’t, analysts note.

“There will definitely be an important face-saving component to any Chinese peace-brokering efforts,” Etienne Soula, a research analyst with GMF’s Alliance for Securing Democracy focusing on China, told CNBC, adding that “Beijing will likely try to help Russia concede as little as possible while convincing the Ukrainians and their Western supporters to bury the hatchet.”

Crucially for China, a humiliated Russia would reflect poorly on its own ambitions to challenge the perceived hegemony of the West.

“China’s narrative about its own rise to the center of global governance is contingent upon the matching idea that Western democracies, and the United States in particular, are declining irreversibly,” Soula said.

“Having those countries defeat one of the largest autocracies in the world, a nuclear-armed Security Council member, via proxy, without even having boots on the ground, would be a big setback for the story China tries to tell the world about the future.”

CNBC has contacted China’s foreign ministry for a response to the comments and is yet to receive a reply.

‘Daunting challenge’

China’s latest foray into the arena of global diplomacy comes after a recent success in brokering a deal between Middle-Eastern nemeses Saudi Arabia and Iran in which they agreed to resume diplomatic relations and reopen embassies in each other’s countries.

Replicating that achievement between Ukraine and Russia will be much harder, analysts say, noting that Beijing has a mountain to climb persuading both sides to reach an agreement when there’s such bad blood between them, and when so much is at stake.

A view of the graveyard where fallen Ukrainian soldiers are buried, including Gennady Kovshyk, a soldier of the 92nd Separate Mechanized Brigade, in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on Feb. 16, 2023.

Sofia Bobok | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

Ukraine has said any settlement to the war must center on Russian troops withdrawing from occupied areas and for its territorial sovereignty to be restored, including the return of four regions Russia declared it had annexed last September, as well as Crimea, which was annexed in 2014.

Russia, meanwhile, demands that Kyiv recognizes Russia’s sovereignty over the annexed regions and accepts independence for pro-Russian separatist “republics” in Luhansk and Donetsk in eastern Ukraine. Moscow also wants to see a “de-militarized” Ukraine, including guarantees it will never join NATO.

While there may be some wiggle room for negotiations; Ukraine has said it could consider security guarantees from Western allies instead of NATO membership, for example; both sides have little appetite for concessions, particularly territorial ones.

After all, Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial existence depends on the outcome of the war, while Putin has arguably staked his whole regime, and Russia’s sense of self, on defeating Ukraine and its Western backers, who he claims want to “destroy” Russia.

When Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba met with China’s envoy Li Hui for talks on Tuesday and Wednesday, the foreign ministry released a statement in which it said Kuleba “emphasized that Ukraine does not accept any proposals that would involve the loss of its territories or the freezing of the conflict.”

“China’s recent success in mediating between Iran and Saudi Arabia shows that it has the ability to navigate between long-term enemies. But, mediating between Ukraine and Russia will be a much more daunting challenge,” Cheng Chen, professor of political science at the University at Albany, State University of New York, told CNBC.

“Since Xi specifically mentioned the importance of sovereignty in his phone call with Zelenskyy, it is unlikely China will side with Russia demanding outright territorial concessions from Ukraine. Nevertheless, China will try hard to make sure whatever deal that materializes would not appear humiliating to Russia in any obvious way,” she added.

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