Analysis by Liana Fix, a Fellow for Europe at the Council on Foreign Relations, and colleague Michael Kimmage, a professor of history at the Catholic University of America, demonstrated three key ways in which China is more invested in the Ukraine war than they previously claimed to be.
Many commentators argue that China hold the key to any breakthrough in relations between Ukraine and Russia, particularly after Volodymyr Zelensky – the Ukrainian president – held talks with Beijing chief Xi Jinping.
Mr Zelensky described his call with Xi as “long and meaningful”, in what some believe could be the first in a number of breakthroughs in relations.
Xi is a well-known ally of Russian president Vladimir Putin – the deranged despot who unleashed his troops on Ukraine in February last year, bringing about war to the continent of Europe.
And despite previously claiming to be neutral on the matter of the Russian war – in an attempt to appease all parties in both the West and the East – Ms Fix and Prof Kimmage argue there’s more at play to China’s public stance.
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Writing for Foreign Affairs this week, the pair outlined three interests China retains in the Ukraine war, including its most prominent hold – ensuring Putin remains in power.
They noted how “Russia with Putin at the helm is a valuable asset for China” as it “figures in Beijing’s Cold War-style rivalry with the US”.
As well as this Putin provides China with “cheap energy and sizeable markets”, and there is a fear in the country that were the Russian dictator to be replaced, “instability” and a “less friendly leader” could emerge.
“The worst-case scenario, the fragmentation of the Russian state, could bring chaos to China’s borders, impeding China’s ability to trade with Central Asia, the South Caucasus, and Europe,” the scholars wrote.
“Although Putin and Xi probably do not agree on how the war in Ukraine should end, they do agree that a clear Russian defeat would be intolerable.”
Another point Ms Fix and Prof Kimmage pose is how a Russian defeat could transform international order, with Moscow plunged into the depths of diplomatic isolation.
The consequences for China would be huge; Beijing suffering a blow to its aspirations for a “new global order” characterised by Chinese sensibilities.
Were the war to continue long into the future, China could “frame the conflict” – and the inevitable problems that would arise through food shortages and inflation globally – in a way that may be used as evidence to the “failings of the preexisting US-led international order”.
This does not mean China wants an immediate end to the conflict. China, the authors add, is “happy for the war to carry on in so far as it keeps US attention and resources pinned to Europe, far away from the Indo-Pacific” – and Beijing.
Finally, China wishes to have a “meaningful stake in the aftermath of the war in Ukraine… it wants to have a say in the eventual peace process and postwar economic landscape of Ukraine“.
They concluded: “The peace plan Xi recently proposed to Putin in Moscow, however lopsided, is a sign that China wishes to be both a mediator and an economic player in Ukraine; it wants to be at the table so that whenever the war ends, it can act on its economic interests. China will do what it can to win the peace.”
China has in recent months visited both Russia and Ukraine, adding fuel to the belief they hold the key in peace talks – but any positive developments in relations still appear a world away.
While maintaining its neutral stance in the war, China said it “always stood on the side of peace” after Xi talks with Mr Zelensky.