Beijing’s Kyiv outreach is about acquiring a global role for itself
Image Source : KurKestutis / Shutterstock
Image Source : KurKestutis / Shutterstock
First Published in: May.04,2023
It aims to signal its diplomatic ascendance and challenge Washington as the big shaper of outcomes.
Late last month, Chinese President Xi Jinping finally made that much hoped-for call to Ukraine’s President Volodymr Zelensky and informed the world that his nation “always stood on the side of peace.” This was the first outreach by Beijing to Ukraine since the latter’s invasion by Russia last February, and Zelensky was keen on this engagement, especially after Xi’s visit to Moscow in March. Ukraine views China as an important interlocutor that can engage with Russia and seems to have been encouraged by the “long and meaningful” phone call between the two leaders that in its view would “give a powerful impetus to the development of our bilateral relations.” Last week, Ukraine’s finance minister also suggested that Kyiv should use its bilateral relationship with China as leverage to bring an end to Russia’s full-scale invasion, though he refused to consider China as a friend.
The Chinese President has been reported as saying that China, “as a responsible majority country,” would “neither watch the fire from the other side, nor add fuel to the fire, let alone take advantage of the crisis to profit.” But there was no suggestion that Beijing would be doing anything meaningful going forward. The call and associated choreography had more to do with positioning China as a global power that is willing to engage in resolving problems, as opposed to the US that is creating more trouble by continuing to support Ukraine and prolonging the war.
China has already laid out its cards on the table when it comes to the Ukraine crisis. It had released a 12-point position paper on the political settlement of the Ukraine crisis earlier this February. In an attempt to present itself as a neutral peace broker, Beijing has enunciated a few standard principles, including respect for the sovereignty of all countries, resumption of peace talks, keeping industrial and supply chains stable and opposition to unilateral sanctions as well as the use of nuclear weapons. Taking this forward, China has decided to send special representatives to Ukraine and hold talks with all parties in an attempt at peace-making.
But beyond these principles, China’s credentials are hardly supportive of a larger role as a peace-maker, as it has long refused to view its ties with Ukraine and Russia at the same level. Russia has shown no inclination to step back from its aggression and Ukraine is seemingly preparing to launch a large-scale counter-offensive against Russian forces in a bid to retake territory in the east and south for which it has been preparing for months now. While Moscow has given no indication of backing down, perhaps assuming that it has time on its side and waiting for the Western consensus on backing Ukraine to collapse, Ukrainian forces feel that the weaponry delivered by the West over the past few months is likely to give them the momentum needed to shape battlefield realities in their favour.
China is also unlikely to be viewed as an honest broker, given its ties with Russia that are increasingly becoming tighter. And despite repeated statements that the “sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of all countries must be effectively upheld,” Beijing has not only refused to acknowledge Russia’s violation of Ukrainian sovereignty, but has continued to privilege its partnership with Moscow. Though Xi’s visit to Moscow in March did not result in any concrete help to Russia, it did signal to the West that the China-Russia entente can shape the global balance of power in ways that can be deleterious to Western interests.
More than anything else, Chinese posturing in the Ukraine conflict is aimed at the West. In its position paper, Beijing talks about the need to abandon a “Cold War mentality” and argues that “the legitimate security interests and concerns of all countries must be taken seriously and addressed properly,” making it clear that it largely agrees with Moscow’s perspective that it was the West that created the conditions for this war with the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Nato). China has also been critical of Western sanctions on Russia, arguing that “relevant countries should stop abusing unilateral sanctions and ‘long-arm jurisdiction’ against other countries, so as to do their share in de-escalating the Ukraine crisis.” Both of these issues are germane for the long-term trajectory of China’s role on the global stage amid deepening tensions with the US. For China, clearly, this crisis is more about itself than it is about Russia.
As China comes out of its covid- induced isolation, it would like to have a stable international environment for a sustained economic recovery. But it is also using an opportunity to emerge as a key global interlocutor by venturing into diplomatic arenas it has been shy of in the past, taking advantage of the West’s recent inward orientation. This effort was exemplified by its attempt to bring Iran and Saudi Arabia together in the highly volatile Middle East.
China’s attempt at emerging as a global peace-maker is about presenting a diplomatic challenge to the US on the global stage. Beijing may not have much of an impact on the eventual outcome of the Ukraine crisis, but it is signalling that it is no longer shy of showcasing its growing diplomatic heft.
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Harsh V. Pant is Vice President – Studies and Foreign Policy at Observer Research Foundation, India. He is a Professor of International Relations with King's India Institute at King’s College London. Professor Pant's current research is focused on Asian security issues. His most recent books include India and Global Governance: A Rising Power and Its Discontents (Routledge).
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