Can China act as a peace broker in the Russian-Ukraine war?

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Weeks after Chinese President Xi Jinping shook hands with and expressed his “no-limits” friendship with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Beijing in early February 2022, Russia launched its infamous invasion of Ukraine. One year later, Russia revealed Xi Jinping is planning a visit to Moscow this spring amid the one-year anniversary of the invasion. 

While China has not confirmed Xi’s meeting with Putin yet, there have been frequent diplomatic exchanges between Russia and China in the past few months. The focus among China observers is on whether China can act as a peace broker and bring an end to the war.

The prospect isn't looking good.

Unverified reports claimed that US president Joe Biden put forward a ceasefire proposal to Ukraine and Russia which was rejected by both parties last month before the US pledged to provide Kyiv with Abrams tanks. 

Since early February, the Russian army has taken offensive moves and launched counter-attacks in a number of cities including Bakhmut and Vuhledar in the Donetsk region.  

As for Ukraine, a survey showed that citizens want to take back Crimea, which was occupied by Russia in 2014: 

Last week, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky paid a surprise visit to London, Paris, and Brussels, pleading for more weaponry support, including fighter jets.

On the eve of Zelensky’s visits, China warned the European Union against supporting Ukraine’s strike for a “complete victory,” an idea vocally supported by many Baltic and Eastern European countries.

A few days later, on February 13, China announced Wang Yi, the country’s top diplomat would visit France, Italy, Hungary, and Russia from February 14–22.  

China’s foreign ministry said Wang would have “in-depth strategic communication” with European political leaders to enhance bilateral relations and mutual trust. One key agenda item, as reflected in Wang’s meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron, was to enhance “peace talks” between Russia and Ukraine.

China has refused to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, claiming that the country is committed to neutrality and a diplomatic resolution to the war. Yet, after the war broke out, pro-Russia war propaganda supporting Moscows’ military action flooded major Chinese social media platforms. One example was the claim that Russia was defending against NATO’s aggressive expansion attempts in Europe, 

Chinese narratives: The US is taking advantage of the war

As China seeks to rebuild bilateral relations with countries in the EU, there has been less pro-Russian war propaganda against NATO and Europe on Chinese social media outlets ahead of the anniversary of the invasion. Instead, in both state-funded media outlets such as Global Times and among influencers on Chinese social media, the US has been singled out as a pro-war country that has taken advantage of Ukraine and Europe:  

A conspiracy theory circulated suggesting the US had a role in sabotaging the Nord Stream I and II pipelines, key gas pipelines which transport gas from Russia to Germany, which were attacked on September 26, 2022. Underwater explosions led to gas leakage of Nord Stream, and initially, officials from the US and EU believed Russia was behind the explosion. However, some right-wing groups in the EU and pro-Russia social media influencers spread the theory that the US was responsible for destroying the pipelines. These claims have been circulated as fact on Chinese social media platforms for months and have been cited as evidence to support the claim that the US would harm the EU out of strategic consideration.

Recently after 85-year-old award-winning journalist Seymour Hersh  endorsed the claim, both China state media outlets including CCTV News, China Daily, and China'soreign spokesperson embraced the theory and demanded a thorough investigation into the incident:

China's neutrality in question

However, at the same time, China’s “neutrality” has also been questioned as the country has allegedly provided Russia’s army with military means, despite sanctions over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Wall Street Journal reported:

Another example that put China's neutrality claim into question was the recent naval drills among South Africa, China, and Russia. The drill beginning on February 20, will run for over one week in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Durban.  Both China and South Africa claimed that the controversial military exercise on the eve of the anniversary of the war between Russia and Ukraine was to show that they belong to “the BRICS family” — Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.

Human rights activists like Kenneth Roth have also highlighted China's vested interest in the ongoing war as China and Russia have built a closer-than-ever economic tie thanks to Western sanctions against Russia:

Thus far, China is yet to officially confirm Xi Jinping’s spring meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, though the world is watching closely how China will perform on this political tightrope.

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