China Watch: China’s Growing Diplomatic Clout

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SUMMARY: Xi Jinping is staking his personal reputation on China’s proposal to facilitate talks to end the war in Ukraine, increasing the odds that the proposal would move forward even though ultimate success is far from guaranteed.   After initially dismissing the proposal as overtly pro-Russian, Western European leaders are beginning to pay attention and are travelling to Beijing to discuss the plan with Xi.  Zelenskyy is open to the proposal and has requested to meet with Xi.   

Xi is using the peace proposal to drive a wedge in the Western alliance, prevent a Russian defeat, and increase China’s diplomatic influence.  In an open letter published in official Russian and Chinese media on March 20, prior to Xi’s three-day visit to Moscow, Xi used the pronoun “I” to refer to the ideas in the peace proposal, tying himself closely to it.[1]  On 6 April, Xi called for peace talks to resume as soon as possible, after meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron in Beijing.

  • Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has signaled his willingness to work with Xi and on 29 March invited Xi to visit Ukraine to discuss the plan.  China has not responded to the offer, but the two sides are likely working behind the scenes to set up a call between Xi and Zelenskyy.
  • Zelenskyy has also hinted at pressure to negotiate.  In an extended interview with Western journalists on 28-29 March, Zelenskyy said that if Ukraine loses Bakhmut, he will feel pressure to compromise and negotiate with Russia.  Zelenskyy also implicitly gave Xi credit for refusing to support Russia militarily.
  • If Ukraine agrees to participate in a China-sponsored peace process, European nations and the US will likely go along, even if they are suspicious of China.  Based on China’s past leadership in the Six-Party Talks with North Korea (2003-2009), Beijing likely prefers a multilateral format involving Russia, Ukraine, China, the EU, the US, and perhaps other parties. 

China intends to use its “peacemaker” role to engage Europe and weaken the Western alliance.  Rising tensions with the US elevate the importance of Europe as a source of Western technology, capital, and markets. 

  •  Spanish Premier Pedro Sanchez visited China on 30-31 March to speak with Xi about China’s peace proposal, among other topics.  Sanchez said the world should pay attention to China’s plan and urged Xi to speak to Zelenskyy.  Spain takes over the EU rotating presidency in July.
  • Macron and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyden are visiting China from 5 to 8 April to meet with Xi to discuss Ukraine and China’s relations with France and Europe.  On 6 April, Macron said that the world is counting on Xi to “bring Russia to reason” over Ukraine.  Macron previously made positive comments about China’s potential role in facilitating peace talks.
  • Beijing’s diplomatic engagement with Russia and Europe likely gives Xi more leverage in dealing with Biden and the United States.  Biden and Xi were scheduled to speak on the phone in March, but Beijing has declined to confirm Xi’s availability.  Beijing will likely wait until after Xi’s meetings with European leaders to speak with Biden.   

China is also hoping that peace talks would help prevent a Russian defeat, which would embolden the West to take tougher actions on China.  A peace process would most likely involve a ceasefire, which could benefit Russia.  In the meantime, China is supporting Russia economically to cushion the impact from Western sanctions.  Bilateral trade reached a record level of USD 190 billion in 2022, a 30 percent increase from 2021.

Xi’s personal involvement in the peace plan carries limited risks to his reputation if it fails to get off the ground, but the potential gain outweighs the risks.  If Zelenskyy declines to participate, the West would criticize Xi as too close to Putin and lacking credibility as an interlocuter, but this criticism would be nothing new.  Domestically, Xi does not have meaningful rivals, indicating that he is not concerned about criticism at home.  If the peace process starts, drags on, but ultimately falters, Xi would still have accomplished his goal of increasing China’s diplomatic clout and engaging Europe to weaken EU-US unity on China policy, especially regarding technology transfer.

The peace proposal is part of Beijing’s larger diplomatic plan to increase its influence beyond Asia, at the expense of Washington.  In March, China brokered a diplomatic deal between rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia.  Chinese media made clear that Xi’s meetings with the Saudi and Iranian leadership were crucial in securing the deal.  On 6 April, the foreign ministers of Iran and Saudi Arabia met in Beijing to discuss bilateral cooperation.  China has traditionally had friendly ties with Iran, but China’s relationship with Saudi Arabia has grown closer in the past several years, as tensions increased between Riyadh and Washington.  On 28 March, Saudi Arabia’s cabinet approved a decision to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a security bloc led by China. 

[1] Interestingly, Chinese state television omitted the pronoun “I” in its 20 March evening news report on Xi’s letter.  Although China practices tight censorship over all media outlets, the evening news program is the most tightly controlled because it has the largest audience.  The fact that TV censors omitted the word “I” suggests there is sensitivity toward Xi being too closely tied to the peace proposal.  Nevertheless, the version with the word “I” was published in the Party’s official daily and the official news agency, strongly indicating that this formulation was approved.  The version published in Russian official media also contained the pronoun “I”.