By Francesca Ghiretti and Grzegorz Stec
The EU has been calling on China to exercise its influence on Russia to stop the war and to respect the territorial sovereignty of Ukraine. Beijing remains one of the few countries that can reach out to Moscow and, as such, the EU is right to ask it to use its open channel of communication to convince Putin to at least stop the killing of civilians. Until recently, the EU had not gone as far as calling for China to mediate a peace agreement. But following an interview with the EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell with the Spanish newspaper El Mundo on March 6, it is now openly signaling support for this idea.
Since then, calls from member states for China to be a mediator in the conflict have become louder. In Italy, the discussion has been dominated by voices who express great hope that China could act as mediator and successfully carry out the task. In other member states the public debate has been more focused on the immediate conflict itself, although the possibility of Beijing mediating has been viewed with greater skepticism, as is the case in Poland.
Is it wishful thinking to expect Beijing to mediate? Probably, for two main reasons. China is far from convinced that it should take on this role and, even if it were to, the parameters of the mediation may not be to Ukrainians’ liking. But let’s take one issue at a time.
China is openly hesitant about taking up the role of mediator. President Xi Jinping and Foreign Minister Wang Yi have expressed support for a peaceful, negotiated resolution to the war. But Beijing does not want to be the sole mediator. Instead, it says it would only mediate as part of an international effort and only as a last resort as it would prefer the Europeans and Russia to solve the crisis amongst themselves, purposefully excluding the United States.
The chances of Beijing taking on the role of sole mediator are therefore slim. China views the Ukrainian “crisis” as a European affair and one that it does not wish to become entangled in. An international effort would allow Beijing to avoid any potential risk to be discredited and stay out of a possible European war if attempts to mediate were to fail. Given the already visible consequences on the global economy of the war, it is no wonder that an economic stability-focused China, too, wants a swift solution.
But what if conditions change or Beijing changes its mind and decides to take on a mediator role? Beijing has made very explicit the strength of its relationship with Russia and expressed understanding for Russia’s security concerns. But most importantly, it has also made clear its condemnation of NATO, which it sees as a vehicle for the United States’ influence in Europe. China has gone as far as to say that NATO is to blame for Russia’s actions. Given this, it is hard to imagine that China, as a mediator, would not attempt to weaken NATO and aim for a new security agreement more favorable to Russia and, indirectly, to itself.
Thus, China’s potential mediation attempt would not be very considerate of the desired outcome of Europeans. Regardless of whether Europeans would be comfortable with a peace proposal brokered by China, the fact is that Ukrainians are unlikely to accept the result of China’s mediation. At the very least China would propose a solution very similar to that which Russia has already proposed, including assurance from the West of a buffer zone, meaning Ukraine would be prevented from joining NATO or the EU. This may sound reasonable to some in Europe, but what matters is whether this will sound reasonable to Ukrainians.
All things considered, China is right to push for international mediation, but aside from a few individuals and Israel, there seems to be little appetite from any international stakeholder to take on this role.