Author : Manoj Joshi

Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Mar 08, 2022 Updated 13 Days ago
Can China rise up to the occasion and act as a mediator between the EU-US combine and Russia?
Ukraine fallout: Europe–US and China

This brief is a part of The Ukraine Crisis: Cause and Course of the Conflict.


China could end up a loser as a result of its inability to balance its relationship between Russia and the US-EU combine in the face of the Ukrainian developments. The Chinese messaging on the crisis has been confused and questions are being raised about what they knew and when. Despite this, now China says it is willing to act as a mediator, but does it have the credibility to act as one ?

The Chinese sought to affirm the importance of sovereignty and territorial integrity, and at the same time blame the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and the US for the crisis. They refused to term the attack as an “invasion” and touted diplomacy as the way forward even as the Russian tanks rained death and destruction in Ukraine. Except for blaming NATO, New Delhi’s position has been similar, only that it is far less consequential than that of Beijing.

Through their difficulties with the US, China has seen the EU as an area of strategic opportunity that had always privileged economic relations over issues of security. However, today a major crisis in Europe that has created a million and a half refugees has united the western world on the issue of security.

The Chinese sought to affirm the importance of sovereignty and territorial integrity, and at the same time blame the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and the US for the crisis.

The big question is whether the Chinese were privy to the Russian plans before they issued their 4 February joint statement. The New York Times cited an intelligence report to suggest that the Chinese officials had asked the Russian to hold off action in Ukraine until the end of the Winter Olympics.

Issued on the opening day of the games, the joint statement declared that this was a “new era” in the global order where “friendship between the two states has no limits”,  and emphasised that “there are no ‘forbidden’ areas of cooperation”. Russia declared support for the Chinese position on Taiwan, and Beijing joined Moscow in calling for an end to NATO’s enlargement and supported its demand for security guarantees on Ukraine.

This has become the closest alignment between the two countries since the 1950s. Note that China had not supported the war in Georgia in 2008 and the invasion of Ukraine in 2014, and has not yet recognised the annexation of Crimea.

Though the target of the joint statement was the US, the EU was not particularly happy with this. In her speech during the Munich Security Conference on the eve of the Russian invasion on 18 February, the President of the European Commission , Ursula von der Leyen, attacked the Sino–Russian communique saying that their “new era” seemed to be one where the rule of the strong prevailed and where there was “intimidation instead of self-determination”.

Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s remarks at the same conference sounded reasonable enough. He focused on the need for NATO to reign in its eastward expansion, even as he stressed that the sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity of all countries should be respected and safeguarded. He called for a return to the Minsk II Agreement which he said provided a way out. He added that Russia’s “reasonable security concerns should be respected and taken seriously.”

However, this message began to appear confused and contradictory once the invasion began. It continued to reiterate support for the “sovereignty and territorial integrity” of all nations, while ignoring the invasion itself and talking about the importance of diplomacy and negotiation.

Russia declared support for the Chinese position on Taiwan, and Beijing joined Moscow in calling for an end to NATO’s enlargement and supported its demand for security guarantees on Ukraine.

On 25 February, the day after what the Chinese termed as the “special military operation” began, Xi spoke to Putin and said that China supported the “resolving issues through negotiation”. He made a call for the need to “abandon Cold War mentality” and “respect the legitimate security concerns of all countries”. He said that China had a consistent and basic position “on respecting the sovereignty and integrity of all countries and abiding with the principles of the UN Charter.”

The next day, China abstained from the UN Security Council resolution condemning the Russian action. The Chinese special representative explained the abstention claiming that it was aimed at dealing with a complex issue carefully so as not to aggravate the situation. He repeated the nostrum that “sovereignty and territorial integrity of all states should be respected.”

There was another report that has serious implications. The Americans talked to the Chinese multiple times to head off the attack and even shared intelligence with them. But instead of acting to defuse the situation, Beijing shared the information with Moscow.

Consequences for EU-US relations

For the past couple of decades, the US ploughed a lonely furrow in Europe, trying to persuade its NATO allies to increase their defence expenditure and take the issue of their defence more seriously. Ukraine has forced a change on their stand. Indeed, the US-EU strategic relations have become even closer, especially today when the Europeans once again have to rely on the US as their key security provider.

The Chinese special representative explained the abstention claiming that it was aimed at dealing with a complex issue carefully so as not to aggravate the situation.

Perhaps the most significant development has been the major shift in Germany. In the past decades, the country had taken an approach that stressed on the importance of economic relations abroad. Three days after the Ukraine invasion, the German Chancellor Olaf Sholz announced that Germany would sharply increase its defence spending to more that 2 percent of its GDP. In 2021, Germany spent 43 billion euros which was around 1.53 percent. In addition, 100 billion euros would be made available for defence purchases. The other NATO nations, like France, the Netherlands, and Belgium too have pledged to  increase their defence spending. Non-NATO countries like Sweden and Finland have announced that they will also hike their defence expenditures. 

Can the Chinese broker a peace deal between Russia and Ukraine?

On 7 March, even as he reiterated China’s “rock solid” relationship with Russia, Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that China was willing “to carry out necessary mediation” between the two countries. He also said that China would be sending humanitarian aid to Ukraine, a clear signal that Beijing was reassessing its support to Russia in the face of Ukraine’s resistance. Only history will tell whether the Ukraine crisis is a danger or an opportunity for China. As the sanctions take hold, Beijing may find its course difficult. It will not be easy for China to escape collateral damage from the Ukrainian developments, Beijing could well be encouraged to try and play mediator. If successful, such a development would hugely enhance China’s status as a global power and help repair the damage that its ties with Europe has sustained.

Three days after the Ukraine invasion, the German Chancellor Olaf Sholz announced that Germany would sharply increase its defence spending to more that 2 percent of its GDP.

On Friday evening, EU Foreign Policy Chief, Josep Borrell, has said that China should mediate peace talks because the West could no longer do so. However, Foreign Minister Wang Yi shot down that idea insisting in a phone conversation with the US  Secretary of State, Antony Blinken,  that Ukraine and Russia should “negotiate directly.”

Even then there is a question whether Beijing can play mediator because of their “there is no limit” commitment to Russia. The Chinese have denied the report on Winter Olympics.

Another reason why this may not work is because Beijing would find it difficult to bridge the maximalist aims of Putin, which could well be the complete elimination or drastic vivisection of Ukraine. These would simply not be acceptable to the Ukrainians.

Finally, there is a counter-question—do the Chinese really care? They have not been particularly interested or effective in mediating peace between North Korea, South Korea, and Japan. They have left a fraught situation on their neighbourhood for the US to resolve.

The Chinese may feel that Putin getting mired in Ukraine is not necessarily bad for them. Russia will become even more dependent and they can presumably get even cheaper supplies of oil and gas as well as other commodities from them. And, going by the logic of their newly enhanced relationship, China could also be tempted to assist Russia in evading the new sanctions.

The Chinese may feel that Putin getting mired in Ukraine is not necessarily bad for them. Russia will become even more dependent and they can presumably get even cheaper supplies of oil and gas as well as other commodities from them.

There is one direct effect on China which is  the disruption of the China–Europe rail traffic. Services, averaging 40 trains a day, link 180 Chinese cities to 23 European ones generating US $75 billion through  two-way overland trade. The bulk of the traffic is still going through Belarus to Poland and avoiding Ukraine, but operators will find the going tough, especially when sanctions come into effect on the Russian railways.

Actually, the insistent criticism of the NATO and the US has been specially grating for China’s Eastern and Central European friends that it has wooed through the 17+1 initiative. The net result has been that the strategic autonomy of the EU which China has long-sought to support, could well become a thing of the past. 

Looking ahead: US–EU and China

So, the Chinese do stand to lose if they do nothing. Both the Americans and the European public opinion now believes that Chinese statements and actions did encourage the Russians on their current course. The Chinese may continue to fudge the issue, but the primary consequence of the Ukrainian invasion has already occurred—the emergence of a revitalised US-EU strategic partnership. “European security and defence has evolved more in the last six days than in the last two decades,” said Ursula von der Leyen earlier this month.

The Chinese may continue to fudge the issue, but the primary consequence of the Ukrainian invasion has already occurred—the emergence of a revitalised US-EU strategic partnership.

As it is, the Chinese relationship with the US remains fraught. The developments described above have not done anything to improve their ties and have, in fact, raised suspicions in Washington about Beijing’s medium-term goals. The break in the US–EU relationship with Russia is far more severe than the one between the US and China. However, now if Beijing decides to cling on to Moscow, the US and EU could end up treating both as one adversarial entity.

Both the Russians and the Chinese could now confront a Europe which is not only populous, but also wealthy and capable of quickly scaling up its militaries, more importantly, it seems determined to do so now. While Putin’s actions have already given shape to a stronger US-EU strategic relationship, there could also be consequences in the Indo-Pacific where the EU as well as its component entities like France and Germany, along with the United Kingdom (UK) have expressed a desire to play a more significant role.

Indeed, there could be an argument that with the Europeans getting charged up and taking steps to enhance their own security, the US may in the medium term of four of five years, have greater room to focus more on the Indo-Pacific than it has been able to do till now.

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Author

Manoj Joshi

Manoj Joshi

Manoj Joshi is a Distinguished Fellow at the ORF. He has been a journalist specialising on national and international politics and is a commentator and ...

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