By dismissing China’s calls for a cease-fire while continuing to ship weapons to Ukraine the US and its allies reinforce the narrative that China wants peace while the West wants war.
During a three-day visit to Moscow last week, Chinese leader Xi Jinping again promoted a vague, 12-point list of principles for ending the war in Ukraine, in an effort to position China as a global peacemaker. The US, UK and the EU has rejected Beijing’s motivations and willingness to bring peace to Ukraine. Rather than dismissing Xi’s diplomatic aspirations out of hand, however, the West should look to take advantage of them.
China’s new effort on Ukraine follows a notable success in brokering a deal to restore relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The Saudi-Iran pact was a real achievement, easing years of enmity and potentially paving the way for a negotiated end to the war in Yemen. While US President Joe Biden
’s administration has expressed skepticism about Iran’s willingness to hold up its end of the bargain, both the US and the European Union have publicly endorsed the agreement as a step toward stabilizing the Middle East.
Giving Beijing a stake in ending the Ukraine war will reduce its incentive to arm Russia.
Ending the war in Ukraine is a more daunting challenge. In the Saudi-Iran talks, China brought together two parties ready for a deal, after they had engaged in several rounds of earlier negotiations. By contrast, neither Russia nor Ukraine has much desire to stop fighting now. Working out the details of a cease-fire, territorial adjustments and security guarantees will require hard choices and painstaking diplomacy. Even if China did hope to play a more active role now, it may not have the stamina or credibility to forge a lasting truce.
Even so, the West should encourage continued Chinese engagement, not reject it. Xi’s peace rhetoric has struck a nerve in parts of the world distant from the conflict. Many developing nations that initially condemned Russia’s invasion have grown ambivalent, vexed by the inflation and food shortages it has caused. By simply dismissing China’s calls for a cease-fire while continuing to ship weapons to Ukraine, the US and its allies reinforce the narrative that China wants peace while the West wants war.
Given Xi’s leverage over Putin, Chinese involvement will be necessary to reach any durable settlement in Ukraine. Even if the belligerents aren’t yet ready to sit down, outside powers should start considering how best to conduct eventual negotiations. One model might be the six-party talks over North Korea’s nuclear program, or the P5+1 grouping that oversaw the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Whatever its exact makeup, any such contact group would have to include both the US and China, as the leading backers of each side.
US and European countries could at least begin discussing such an arrangement with China now, without slackening their arms deliveries to Ukraine. If China balks or makes unrealistic demands — such as an immediate cease-fire that locks in Putin’s land grab — its pretensions as a peacemaker will be exposed.
On the other hand, if China does agree to serious talks, the US might gain better insight into Putin’s red lines. If nothing else, encouraging Xi to see value for China in playing a visible peacemaking role would reduce his incentive to provide Russia with weapons, which would only embolden Putin, prolong the war, and cause greater destruction and bloodshed.
Working together on Ukraine might even open a rare channel of communication between Washington and Beijing, and restore some stability to the rapidly cratering US-China relationship, including over the issue of Taiwan. Trying to stop one war may help the two rivals stave off another, more devastating conflict. That’s an opportunity both sides should welcome.