The route to peace in Ukraine may travel through China. Because of its unique relationship with Russia, China now has more influence than any other country to convince Moscow to seek peace. Beijing should not be reluctant to use this clout.
As a first step, President Xi Jinping should refuse Russian requests for military assistance. He could initiate shuttle diplomacy in European capitals to broker a cease-fire and chart a clear path for actions required for sanctions to be lifted – and ultimately to find a way for Russia to peacefully coexist with its European neighbors.
China can also play a critical role in opening humanitarian access in Ukraine by calling forcefully on Russia to abide by Article 55 of the Geneva Conventions and respect the safe corridors for refugees and aid shipments to which they agreed. The humanitarian toll in Ukraine is acute and growing worse each day, and China’s voice may be one that breaks through to Vladimir Putin.
“China is big, it is growing, and it will influence the world in the years ahead,” Robert Zoellick, then U.S. deputy secretary of state, famously told the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations in 2005. He went on to say that China should become a responsible stakeholder in the international system. “It would work with us to sustain the international system that has enabled its success.”
Despite growing tensions with the West, China still has the potential to prove Zoellick right. Almost 17 years later, China’s influence on global peace and prosperity has only grown more impactful. As the Ukraine crisis deepens, the international community is wondering – and hoping – if this is China’s moment to step into a global crisis as a force for peace and stability.
There have been signs of China’s willingness to be a responsible stakeholder. President Xi placed a phone call to President Putin on Feb. 25, urging Moscow to exercise restraint and open negotiations with President Zelenskyy. On March 7, Xi held a virtual summit with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has talked to his counterparts in the U.S., Ukraine, the EU, and Hungary. Wang has indicated that China wants “to facilitate dialogue for peace.” On March 14, China’s top diplomat, Yang Jiechi, met with U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan in Rome to discuss U.S.-China relations and the Russian war against Ukraine.
The challenge is how to translate these words into meaningful actions.
China’s ever-growing economic power places it in position to put pressure on Moscow. Russia is losing export customers and import suppliers quickly, and its sources of loans are drying up; it simply can’t afford to lose China’s business, even in the short term. Russians who can no longer access their Visa, Mastercard, and AMEX cards will turn to China for credit cards. That’s some strong leverage.
After years of tense relations between the U.S. and China, Xi and President Joe Biden have taken cautious steps recently to repair the relationship. They held a virtual summit in November and agreed to put the bilateral relationship back on the right track, but the Ukraine crisis presents a historic and tangible opportunity for Washington and Beijing to work together as joint anchors for peace and development now and in the coming years. If the U.S. and China could coordinate their actions to broker peace in South Sudan, get Iran to agree to limit its nuclear capacity, and put Ebola under check, they undoubtedly can find ways to work together to end the war in Ukraine as quickly as possible.
Working together on the Ukraine crisis will not make tensions in the U.S.-China relationship disappear. Several difficult issues, including sovereignty over the South China Sea and the status of Hong Kong and Taiwan, will remain points of contention. Nevertheless, cooperation between the world’s two most powerful nations is essential to ending the war in Ukraine and addressing its people’s humanitarian needs. Agreeing to disagree in order to find common ground was President Nixon’s and Mao Zedong’s recipe to open a window for relations between the U.S. and China. It laid the groundwork for President Carter and Deng Xiaoping to eventually normalize diplomatic relations between the two nations.
Playing the role of peacemaker in Ukraine will bear dividends for China and its place in the world, opening new opportunities to broker peace, bolsters its trade opportunities in the region, and elevate China’s status in the West. These benefits will accrue to China in the future — but only if it acts now to forge a peace agreement, end the most consequential outbreak of war in Europe since WWII, stem the burgeoning refugee crisis in Europe, and relieve the suffering of the Ukrainian people. It cannot wait.