“Our friendship is as strong as steel”, reads a famous propaganda poster celebrating the strength of the Sino-Soviet relationship. Similar tones are used today. On Monday 7 March, on the 12th day of Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi called Russia Beijing’s “most important strategic partner” amid its continued refusal to condemn the invasion of Ukraine, adding that friendship between the two peoples is “iron clad”.
Today we know that the Sino-Soviet relationship was not actually strong, but rather marked by ideological divergences and much more concrete geopolitical rivalries. How solid are ties between Beijing and Moscow today? Are value-based and economic efforts to oppose the West, growing cooperation in the military domain as well in the digital space enough to define them an “alliance”?
This question has been keeping researchers busy for years already, but becomes even more relevant in the context of the war against Ukraine, where Beijing is increasingly called upon to step in as a mediator. Together with countries such as Israel and Turkey, which enjoys positive relations with both Kiev and Moscow, China could be key in ensuring the success of joint and bilateral diplomatic endeavours to stop the war. At the same time, several analysts are sceptical both of China’s credibility and impartiality and of its real willingness to play an uncomfortable mediator role. Here are three expert takes with compelling arguments both in favour and against international efforts to engage China in the peace negotiations.
Should China be engaged in negotiations?
NO, IT SHOULDN'T.
"It would make little sense to ask China to mediate. China has strong relations with Russia, and the position selected from the outset of the conflict was oriented toward Russian talking points and, in fact, echoed them. This will certainly not be welcomed by Ukraine, and if it decides to turn to Beijing for help in ending hostilities, it will be primarily in the hope that China will put pressure on the Russian leadership. Whether Beijing would want to employ such a scheme, and more importantly, whether it has enough leverage, is a big question. China may find it inconvenient and politically sensitive to put pressure on Russia in any way. While the Russian-Chinese relationship, according to some assessments, is more than an alliance, the parties still greatly value their strategic autonomy. This will psychologically limit any attempts by Beijing, in a potential moderator role, to narrow down Moscow's initial negotiating positions. In addition, the West will be the third party in discussions on any issues. Thus, China will have to mediate in a complex environment - not Russia vs. Ukraine, but Russia vs. Ukraine + the West. It is unlikely that China will undertake such a challenging task. Beijing prefers to stay out of the conflict and not sacrifice China's image regardless of any possible outcome in Ukraine. Negotiations will evidently yield results if Xi Jinping personally acts as a guarantor, and he will not take such substantial risks. In addition, the upcoming CPC Congress imposes the most severe restrictions on any foreign policy initiatives fraught with uncertainty."
Igor Denisov, Senior Research Fellow, MGIMO University
YES, IT SHOULD.
"The risk of a world war is at stake, and we must use every tool to avert it. China is a vital partner of Ukraine and a strategic partner of Russia and can use its leverage with both countries. Perhaps it should also be involved in brainstorming with the West to find solutions to the crisis.
In this case, the West should be taking the first step. After the "joint declaration" sanctioning "friendship without limits" with Putin on February 4, China cannot do so even if it has sent out many warning signs indicating that its government opposes Putin’s actions.
China is pragmatic, has the mantra of stability, wants to do business and still needs globalization to continue fuelling its economy. War is the most unstable and unpredictable thing that exists; it can indirectly damage the domestic and foreign interests of the People's Republic and further ruin its already precarious relations with the United States and Europe (two essential markets).
Of course, there could be potential negative spillovers for the West. Asking China to help mediate could give Beijing the opportunity to show itself to the world as a responsible power: the image of the Celestial Empire and its soft power would be strengthened."
Giada Messetti, sinologist and author
Our latest analysis
Russia vs Ukraine: Where Does China (Really) Stand?
by Filippo Fasulo, ISPI
"China is Putin’s best ally" or " China lets Russia attack Ukraine so that it can later decide to invade Taiwan... ". These are some of the assumptions that have been heard more frequently over the last few days about the war in Ukraine. Indeed, the situation is much more complex than that. China is not simply an ally of Russia and, barring drastic changes that may arise with no prior notice in these uncertain times, it has no intention of invading Taiwan in the short term. Let’s see why.