Brokering peace in Ukraine would be good for Xi and China: is he adroit enough to pull it off?

The Moscow summit between the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, was described as a visit that may change the world order by many international media. Xi’s visit came at a time of great need for isolated Putin, but the rest of the world remains puzzled about precisely how far China will go in supporting Russia in its horrific war in Ukraine.

While China demonstrates a willingness to maintain the status quo in its relationship with its biggest nuclear neighbour, Xi has still not provided a straightforward answer on exactly what kind of support is on offer, beyond deepening bilateral trade ties and elusively worded further coordination in international affairs. Nor is there a clear next step for Beijing’s “peace plan” until a call between Xi and the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, takes place.

Judging from the joint communique issued by the two leaders, Beijing rehashed a call for political settlement on Ukraine. But the document offers little detail on how Kyiv and Moscow can reach that without military withdrawal by Russia.

The communique also tellingly omits any inclusion of the previously touted phrase of a “no limits” partnership with Russia, first referred to in January 2021. Instead, Xi stressed a relationship based on “no-alliance, no-confrontation and no-targeting against any third parties”. The removal of the no limits partnership almost certainly displays a new sense of agonising on Beijing’s bilateral ties with Moscow.

Putin’s mistaken gamble that the law of the jungle would prevail for his invasion ended when an international criminal court arrest warrant was issued. It would be unwise for Beijing to involve itself further, putting at risk its own nascent efforts to rehabilitate ties with major European economies. Russia, on the other hand, has been keen to exploit China’s ambivalence by presenting Xi’s visit as Beijing’s full endorsement of the invasion, and proving Putin still has friends in high places.

But China’s reasons to sustain its ties with Russia go well beyond the Kremlin’s military adventure. The two countries share a border of 4,300km – about the equivalent of the width of Europe. Generations of Chinese leaders managed to settle the border between the two after holding some 2,000 meetings up to the turn of the century. The painful memory of the issues between the Chinese Communist party and its Soviet counterpart is much alive today among Beijing’s political blue bloods.

China simply cannot afford to have sabre-rattling on its eastern borders with the US and its allies, while Moscow may also provoke a security threat. Beijing may well learn that intricate geography combined with high-octane rhetoric of a partnership with no limits comes at a heavy price.

Its long-term alignment with Russia is increasingly bound to their common resentment of US hegemony, not by shared values. Deepened bilateral cooperation in recent years has allowed the two countries to demonstrate a great-power status on the world stage to counterbalance the dominance of the US.

While part of Chinese public opinion amplifies Beijing’s pro-Russia narrative, it is not because parts of the population have any particular or real affection towards the country. Rather, it is a direct result of negative public perception towards the US, and incidents such as the painful memory of Nato’s bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999. Such strong currents in public opinion also require that Chinese leaders should not openly appear on the side of the west.

Related: Putin should be under no illusion – Xi is not Russia’s knight in shining armour | Olga Chyzh

Meanwhile, China is making a renewed push to strengthen ties with the global south, which does not see the war in Ukraine in as black and white terms as the west does. Xi’s trip to Moscow equally signals to an audience in many other non-western countries, along with its recent involvement in the successful restoration of ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia – a diplomatic coup that caught many observers off guard.

Its continual talk of energy and food security may also strike a chord with developing countries that are taking the toll of the negative knock-on economic impacts from this war. Many non-western countries are still attempting a post-Covid economic recovery with revived trade and investment – not a booming defence industry.

Russia’s war has left the west more firmly united than it has been in years. As China’s relations with the US have plunged to new lows, Chinese leaders also want to avoid alienating the EU, one of the country’s biggest trading partners. Actively brokering peace in Ukraine may well help China to secure less hostile conditions for its own economic recovery, but it would also require China to be explicit and upfront about the limits and red lines with its partner in the Kremlin.

This war continues to test China’s ability to adroitly manage several conflicted interests. But to avoid Soviet-style confrontation, a simple phone call between Xi and Zelenskiy may prove necessary as a starter to steady this precarious balancing act.

  • Dr Yu Jie is a senior research fellow on China in the Asia-Pacific Programme, Chatham House