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Ukraine: Could the United States and China bring peace?

Christoph Hasselbach
March 27, 2023

If China wanted to, it could put Russia under pressure to end the war in Ukraine. At the same time, war weariness is spreading in the US. Could the two global rivals yet work together for peace?

Indonesien G20 Joe Biden und Xi Jinping
Image: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Possibly the only person in the world who has any real influence on Vladimir Putin is his self-declared friend Xi Jinping. China's leader did not let Putin's arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court stop him from visiting Moscow recently.

China's influence in Moscow stems from diplomatic decisions and economic dependence: China, the world's second most important economy, has yet to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine. And while the West is imposing ever tougher sanctions on Russia, China is doing the opposite and expanding its trade with Moscow.

Is China the winner in the Ukraine war?

Common goal: Breaking the West's dominance

"Actually, Russia's brutal war of aggression is not in China's interest," Henning Hoff, executive editor of Internationale Politik Quarterly, told DW. "The war is disrupting China's economic recovery after three 'zero-covid' years. And given how the war is going, Beijing is in danger of ending up on the losing side."

But China is trying to "reap its economic benefits from the war and its aftermath," for example, by buying discounted oil and gas from Russia. Conversely, China may increase its exports to Russia at a time when trade relations with the West are becoming more difficult. The United States believes that this includes civilian technical equipment that could be used militarily.

As a result, Russia is becoming more dependent on China, which means that Beijing has leverage over Moscow that no one else has. Xi could persuade Putin to negotiate an end to the war if he wanted to. But so far, the Chinese leader has shown the Russian president a red line on only one point: Using nuclear weapons.

But there is an overriding Chinese interest that is even greater than the war: China wants Russia as a partner to enforce a world order without Western dominance, which means that, from China's perspective, Russia must not lose the war. It would also be bad for Xi if the Putin regime were to fail, because that would be a setback for the authoritarian model to which he is also committed.

Sarmat rocket
Using nuclear weapons is currently China's red line for RussiaImage: Cover-Images/IMAGO

Russia's dependence is in China's interest

Externally, China is trying to act as a peace broker in the Ukraine war. However, a peace plan presented by a Chinese government representative at the Munich Security Conference in February was rejected by Western governments for being too vague, and lacking a call for a Russian troop withdrawal from Ukraine, an essential precondition for both Kyiv and the West.

Xi's Moscow visit was accompanied by much peace rhetoric in the Chinese media, though Xi did not mention the war at all there in public. And Putin seemed to play along to some extent: "Russia is open to settling the Ukraine crisis by political-diplomatic means," he wrote in an article for the Chinese People's Daily shortly before the visit.

But in the same article, Putin insisted that Kyiv must recognize "new geopolitical realities" with Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014 and four Ukrainian regions last year. However, at least Putin did not talk of Ukraine being an illegitimate state ruled by Nazis that had to be annexed by Russia, as he has done in the past.

What can be expected from China in the search for peace? Not much at the moment, said Wolfgang Ischinger, the former head of the Munich Security Conference, and formerly a leading German diplomat. "Because of the current tense atmosphere between the US and China, China has little incentive at the moment to reduce its proximity to Russia," he told DW.

He added that if the war drags on even longer, further weakening Russia militarily, economically and politically, Russia will become even more dependent on China. "From the Chinese point of view, that might not be a bad development at all," Ischinger said.

Growing fear of war in Germany

So any pressure to seek peace between Russia and Ukraine is not currently coming from China, nor from the warring parties themselves. In what is developing into a war of attrition, both sides apparently still believe they can win decisively militarily.

That pressure to make peace is more likely to come from Ukraine's Western backers. Their populations are clearly feeling the economic effects of the war in the form of energy shortages, inflation, and strained public budgets, leaving states with less money.

In Germany, fear of war is also on the rise. In a R+V Insurance survey published a few days ago, 63% of Germans fear that the country is not capable of defending itself, and 55% of respondents are worried that Germany will become involved in a war, an increase of 13 points from 2022.

US President walking through Kyiv
Biden's commitment to Ukraine could prove a risk domesticallyImage: Evan Vucci/AP Photo/picture alliance

Biden's pledge to Ukraine is politically risky

Meanwhile, in the United States, Ukraine's most important supporter by a long way, willingness to continue helping the European country so generously when there is little prospect of peace is waning, among the population at large and in Congress among Republicans. That makes it politically risky in the longer term for President Joseph Biden, who recently pledged support to Ukraine "for as long as it takes" in Kyiv.

Writing in Foreign Policy magazine, Stephen Walt said that Biden had thus tied his political fate to the outcome of the war, arguing that, measured against what he has promised, anything less than complete victory will look like failure. And if China becomes even more supportive of Russia, Biden may feel compelled to impose further sanctions on China, which in turn would jeopardize US economic recovery. And then, Walt writes, potential Republican presidential contenders would be hoping for a 2024 victory.

War fatigue in the US is already having an impact on the Biden administration: Questioned by a Republican member of Congress, Secretary of State Antony Blinken now hinted for the first time that Ukraine might not be able to retake all Russian-occupied territory. That was itself a taboo-breaking statement.

Idea of US-China peace initiative comes from Europe

For both Washington and Beijing, the Ukraine war is ultimately just part of a larger confrontation between two countries, one democratic and one autocratic. And in this growing confrontation, Henning Hoff believes, "Germany and Europe will have to position themselves more strongly, and seek solidarity with the Americans on more issues than before."

Another consequence of this confrontation for the Europeans is the "urgently needed greater European contribution in terms of military security, also so that the Americans can focus more on the Indo-Pacific."

The US, as the key supporter, has the most influence over Ukraine, and China the most (perhaps the only) influence over the Kremlin. At a recent EU summit, it was of all people Xavier Bettel, the prime minister of Luxembourg, who urged Joe Biden to negotiate a peace plan on Ukraine with Xi Jinping. The other states would accept that, Bettel said.

That is probably what many EU states would prefer: that the two big players in world politics solve the Ukraine-Russia problem among themselves, and thus also for the Europeans.

This article was originally written in German.

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