China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, has cast himself as a global statesman, helping Saudi Arabia and Iran broker a deal to restore diplomatic ties while extolling the virtues of “Chinese solutions and wisdom” in solving the world’s biggest security challenges.
Now, Mr. Xi is putting himself at the center of Russia’s war with Ukraine, potentially positioning himself as a mediator to end the protracted fight.
The Chinese leader is expected to meet in person next week with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, and a call with President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine could follow. China has already proposed a peace settlement, though it does not address important details such as whether Russian troops will withdraw. In announcing Mr. Xi’s visit to Russia, a Chinese official on Friday said it was “for the sake of peace.”
At stake for Beijing is its push for legitimacy as leader of an alternative world order to the one dominated by the United States, a role it has sought with growing urgency to resist what Mr. Xi described as Washington’s “containment, encirclement and suppression of China.”
Both Russia and Ukraine look at China as a potentially transformative power, one with enough clout to break the impasse. But both Moscow and Kyiv are also keenly aware that China could fundamentally alter the dynamics on the battlefield if it plays a more direct role in replenishing Moscow’s badly depleted arsenal.
“China’s international influence as a great power is required for peace now more than almost ever,” said Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing, reflecting Beijing’s own sense of its growing global importance following the deal between Tehran and Riyadh.
Building off that momentum and stepping into the fray of the war could help Mr. Xi achieve one of his most pressing needs: repairing Beijing’s relationship with Europe. With the Chinese economy struggling, he wants to prevent the region from aligning too closely with the United States on trade and investment restrictions targeting China.
To do that, analysts say Mr. Xi will likely need to demonstrate a strong enough effort to end Russia’s war, in a move to exploit splits within the European Union over the American push to counter China. If he can, it could help satisfy powers eager to ramp up economic engagement with Beijing, including Germany and France.
“Xi Jinping’s target is not Russia or Ukraine, but rather Western Europe,” said Danny Russel, a vice president of the Asia Society Policy Institute and a former U.S. assistant secretary of state. “Ultimately, what he’s trying to do is set it up so that in the eyes of the Germans and the French, he gave it a shot.”
For Moscow, the bar for peace talks is high. Russia has rejected Western demands to withdraw troops as a condition for talks. Mr. Putin, in meeting with Mr. Xi, will likely prioritize asking for help replenishing stocks of military-grade components and increasing exports to China to fatten the Kremlin’s war chest. It will also give Russia a chance to emphasize that it has not been isolated by the global community.
The State of the War
For Ukraine, China has long represented a potential lifeline, holding enough sway over Russia to influence the war. Mr. Zelensky, with Washington’s encouragement, has sought to hold talks with Mr. Xi for months. He even dispatched his wife, Olena Zelenska, to deliver to the Chinese delegation a letter requesting a meeting at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
China’s role is complicated. Beijing has sought to portray itself as a neutral bystander in the war but has continued to provide diplomatic and economic support to Russia.
Washington warned last month that China was preparing to provide lethal weapons to Russia and threatened to impose sanctions if it follows through. Beijing denied the allegation and has accused the United States of driving the two countries toward “conflict and confrontation.”
Analysts say it is unlikely China would take the risk of supplying Moscow with weapons and ammunition unless Russian forces were facing collapse. Beijing is prepared to back Mr. Putin, but only enough to help him remain in power and preserve a united front against the West.
“Beijing is agnostic about the conflict,” said Aleksandr Gabuev, an expert on Russia’s relations with Asia at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a research group. “What it wants is to prevent a catastrophic Russian defeat, which could threaten Putin.”
Skepticism abounds in the West about Mr. Xi’s intentions in the war, given his conflicting goals and interests.
The position paper China released in February that outlined a political settlement to the war was widely criticized by Western leaders for lacking concrete plans and avoiding demands that could hurt Beijing’s ties with Moscow. Beijing has never condemned Russia’s invasion and parrots the Kremlin’s assertion that the war was provoked by the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
The deep ties between the two nuclear-armed powers are said to be enhanced by a personal affinity between Mr. Xi and Mr. Putin, who both declared a “no-limits” partnership shortly before Ukraine was invaded. Since then, Russia has grown increasingly reliant on China.
“There are no ties that are more important to Russia,” Mr. Gabuev said.
In announcing the three-day visit by Mr. Xi starting March 20, Russia said that the sides would discuss “issues of further development of the comprehensive partnership” between the two countries, as well as “deepening Russian-Chinese cooperation on the international arena.” In Kremlin practice, a state visit signifies the highest form of bilateral talks, usually reserved for the closest allies.
Discussing the visit on Friday, Wang Wenbin, a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry, said that “maintaining world peace and promoting common development are the purposes of China’s foreign policy,” adding that on the Ukraine issue, China has always stood on the side of peace, dialogue and historical correctness.”
Neither China nor Ukraine has announced a call between their two leaders, the protocol around which will be more complicated to navigate with Russia.
It remains to be seen whether Mr. Xi will raise the idea of peace negotiations during his visit, and seize on the momentum from the deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
That agreement was struck under vastly different conditions. Both sides had already held extensive talks and expressed a willingness to mend ties. Ukraine and Russia, on the other hand, remain locked in a bloody war in which neither side appears ready to negotiate an end.
“While the Chinese role in the Iran-Saudi agreement is eye-catching and shows that China is playing a bigger role on the international stage, its lessons do not apply well to the Russia-Ukraine situation,” said Dennis Wilder, former head of China analysis at the C.I.A.
China contends that the Saudi-Iran accord reflects its vision of a new style of global governance that emphasizes dialogue and communication over military deterrence and intervention. Beijing was able to serve as a credible mediator because it cultivated close ties with both Tehran and Riyadh and never exploited their differences, Chinese analysts say.
Any Chinese-led negotiations over Ukraine could hinge on how Kyiv views Beijing. Before the war, China and Ukraine had a blossoming relationship supported by growing trade in commodities and arms sales.
Though Ukraine has been careful about criticizing China’s tacit support for Russia’s invasion, Beijing’s inaction on the crisis for more than a year and its amplification of Kremlin propaganda about NATO aggression has undercut its credibility.
In some ways, the war has served Chinese interests. The conflict has provided Beijing with access to discounted oil from a heavily sanctioned Russia. It has also created a greater opportunity for Mr. Xi to drive a wedge between the United States and a war-weary Europe reluctant to experience another winter with high energy prices.
Most importantly, the war has prevented the United States from dedicating more attention and resources to Asia, where China presents a far greater long-term challenge to the Western-led world order than Russia.
“If I was sitting in Beijing, I would think this is a good thing,” said Theresa Fallon, the director of the Center for Russia Europe Asia Studies in Brussels. “The U.S. can run down its ammunition and artillery shells, and their attention is spread across the board instead of being laser-like focused on their pacing challenge, which is China.”
Mr. Xi is on a mission of “national rejuvenation,” underscoring what he perceives as the United States standing in his way. Mr. Putin’s complaints about NATO’s encroachment rings true to Mr. Xi, as the United States strengthens security ties in the region with Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and Australia..
And part of Beijing’s strategy to counter that pressure is to stake out a greater role in global stability to challenge U.S. influence.
“Compared to China’s previous diplomatic actions, it is a very proactive step forward,” said Wu Xinbo, dean of international studies at Fudan University in Shanghai. “China will play an increasingly active role on the international stage, especially in solving regional conflicts.”
Keith Bradsher Olivia Wang, and Ivan Nechepurenko contributed reporting.