PRESIDENT XI JINPING can be taken at face value when he told his US counterpart Joe Biden in Friday’s two-hour video call that China does not want war in Ukraine.
His friend, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, giving the West a quick and bloody nose in Ukraine would have been one thing. Xi could have cheered on from the side but be otherwise uninvolved. His view of the West’s secular decline and democracies’ failings would have been further confirmed.
However, events have turned out badly for China, and become worse the longer they drag on. The West’s response to Russia’s invasion has been forceful and unified. An anticipated lightening military victory has become a siege war of attrition. Soaring energy, metals and food prices and renewed disruption to supply chains have stiffened the economic headwinds buffeting China.
Most of all, China is caught uncomfortably in the middle diplomatically. Xi cannot (and will not) abandon his friend, yet, nor can he side with the West over the conflict.
China has had to perform diplomatic gymnastics to preserve its principles of indivisible sovereignty and non-interference in the internal affairs of others, both violated by Russia’s invasion. Calls for resolving the conflict by diplomatic means sound rote, and Beijing’s lack of experience and possibly capacity to broker peace have been exposed.
Economically, future trade with Europe and the United States, already more than five times larger than that with Russia, is in the balance. Maintaining economic relations with the West while opposing US ‘hegemony’ has been a tightrope Beijing has chosen to walk. Yet, as Biden made clear to Xi in their call, getting knocked off by the imposition of yet more Western economic sanctions for aiding Moscow is a growing risk. China will be particularly reticent to help Moscow circumvent financial sanctions, as those are where it and Chinese firms will be most vulnerable.
Beijing also needs Russia’s implicit security guarantees in Central Asia for the Belt and Road. These will be coloured by the outcome of Ukraine, which limits China’s opportunities now to exploit Russian weakness to secure cheap energy and commodities.
China has never joined Russia in any military intervention abroad and is unlikely to start now, even if it supplies materials for the Russian army’s use. War in Ukraine is not a core interest, and its leadership displays caution on matters not related to its core interests. In such circumstances, it prioritises creating a stable international environment conducive to China’s economic development.
It does not look as if Beijing knows how to do that, beyond repeating calls for a negotiated settlement. A telltale sign was the readouts of the Xi-Biden call: whereas the United States portrayed Ukraine as the focus of the call, China’s portrayed US-China relations as the main topic.
Yet taking a formal lead in mediating a peace in Ukraine would underline how Beijing’s relationship with Moscow was more one of convenience and a shared adversary rather than the ‘no limits’ alliance portrayed. It could also be taken domestically as yielding to Western pressure.
Further, failure of such talks would be a diplomatic embarrassment that could rebound internally with uncertain effects, given the imminence of the Party Congress in the autumn.