China's supreme leader, Xi Jinping, has established himself as a global statesman, helping Saudi Arabia and Iran broker a deal to restore diplomatic ties while extolling virtues.Chinese solutions and wisdomin solving the world's greatest security challenges.
Now, Mr Xi is placing himself at the center of Russia's war with Ukraine, potentially positioning himself as the 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 phone call with President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine could follow. China has proposed a peace settlement, although it did not discuss key details such as whether Russian troops would withdraw. In announcing Mr Xi's visit to Russia, a Chinese official said Friday it was “for the sake of peace.”
At stake for Beijing is its push to gain legitimacy as leader of a world order alternative to one dominated by the United States, a role it has sought with increasing urgency to counter what Xi described as Washington's “containment, encirclement, and suppression of China.” .”
Both Russia and Ukraine view China as a potentially transformative force, one strong enough to break the impasse. But both Moscow and Kyiv are also keenly aware that China could fundamentally change the dynamics on the battlefield if it played a more direct role in replenishing Moscow's severely depleted arsenal.
“China's international influence as a great power is needed 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 interests in the aftermath of the deal between Tehran and Riyadh. .
Building on that momentum and stepping into battle could help Xi achieve one of his most pressing needs: repairing Beijing's relations with Europe. With China's economy struggling, he wants to prevent the region from getting too close to the United States on trade and investment restrictions targeting China.
To do that, analysts say Xi may need to show a strong enough effort to end Russia's war, in a move to exploit divisions within the European Union over America's push to counter China. If he can, it could help appease powers wishing to increase economic engagement with Beijing, including Germany and France.
“Xi Jinping's target is not Russia or Ukraine, but Western Europe,” said Danny Russel, vice president of the Asian Institute of Public Policy and a former US assistant secretary of state. “In the end, what he was trying to do was arrange it so that in the eyes of the Germans and the French, he tried it.”
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 a meeting with Mr Xi, is likely to prioritize asking for help to replenish stockpiles of military-grade components and increase exports to China to fatten the Kremlin's war chests. It will also give Russia an opportunity to emphasize that it is not isolated by the global community.
For Ukraine, China has long represented a potential lifeline, holding enough power over Russia to influence war. Mr Zelensky, with Washington's encouragement, had been trying to hold talks with Mr Xi for months. He even sent his wife, Olena Zelenska, to deliver a letter to the Chinese delegation requesting a meeting at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
China's role is complicated. Beijing has attempted to portray itself as a neutral observer in the war but continues to provide Russia with diplomatic and economic support.
Washington warned last month that China was preparing to provide lethal weapons to Russia and threatened sanctions if it followed through. Beijing denies the accusations and accuses the United States of pushing the two countries towards “conflict and confrontation.”
Analysts say it is unlikely China will risk supplying Moscow with arms and ammunition unless Russian troops face a collapse. Beijing is ready to support Putin, but only enough to help him stay in power and maintain a united front against the West.
“Beijing is agnostic to the conflict,” said Aleksandr Gabuev, an expert on Russia-Asia relations at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a research group. “What he wants is to prevent a catastrophic defeat for Russia, which could threaten Putin.”
Skepticism abounds in the West about Mr Xi's intentions in the war, given his conflicting goals and interests.
A position paper released by China in February outlining a political settlement to the war was widely criticized by Western leaders for not having a concrete plan and avoiding demands that could damage Beijing's relationship with Moscow. Beijing has never condemned the Russian invasion and has copied the Kremlin's assertion that the war was sparked by the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
The deep bond between the two nuclear armed powers is said to be enhanced by the personal closeness between Mr. Xi and Mr. Putin, with whom the two declared a “borderless” partnership shortly before Ukraine was invaded. Since then, Russia has become increasingly dependent on China.
“There are no ties that are more important for Russia,” said Gabuev.
In announcing a three-day visit by Mr Xi from March 20, Russia said that the two sides would discuss “issues of further developing a comprehensive partnership” between the two countries, as well as “deepening Russia-China cooperation in the international arena.” .” In Kremlin practice, state visits signify the highest form of bilateral talks, usually reserved for the closest allies.
Discussing the visit on Friday, Wang Wenbin, spokesperson for China's foreign ministry, said that “maintaining world peace and promoting common development is the goal of China's foreign policy,” adding that on the issue of Ukraine, China has always stood on the side of peace, dialogue, and historical truth.”
Neither China nor Ukraine have it announced call between their two leaders, a protocol that will be more complicated to navigate with Russia.
It remains to be seen whether Xi will raise the idea of peace negotiations during his visit, and capitalize on the momentum from the deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
The deal was made under very different conditions. The two sides have held extensive talks and expressed a willingness to improve relations. Ukraine and Russia, on the other hand, remain locked in a bloody war in which neither side is ready to negotiate an end.
“While China's role in the Iran-Saudi agreement is eye-catching and shows that China is playing a bigger role on the international stage, its lessons don't apply well to the Russia-Ukraine situation,” said Dennis Wilder, the former head of China Analysis at CIA
China argues that the Saudi-Iranian deal reflects its vision of a new style of global governance that emphasizes dialogue and communication over deterrence and military intervention. Beijing is able to be a credible mediator because it maintains close ties with Tehran and Riyadh and never exploits their differences, Chinese analysts say.
Any China-led negotiations over Ukraine could hinge on how Kyiv views Beijing. Before the war, China and Ukraine had a thriving relationship that was underpinned by increased commodity trade and arms sales.
Although Ukraine has been wary of criticizing China's tacit support for a Russian invasion, Beijing's inaction to the crisis spanned more than a year and amplification of Kremlin propaganda about NATO aggression has undermined its credibility.
In some ways, the war has served China's interests. The conflict has given Beijing access to discounted oil from heavily sanctioned Russia. It has also created greater opportunities for 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 devoting 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 were sitting in Beijing, I would think this is a good thing,” said Theresa Fallon, director of the Russian Center for Asian European Studies in Brussels. “The US could run out of ammunition and artillery shells, and their attention is scattered across the board instead of focusing like a laser on their pacing challenge, which is China.”
Mr Xi is on a mission of “national rejuvenation,” underscoring what he perceives as the obstruction of the United States. Mr Putin's complaints about NATO encroachment are true for Mr Xi, as the United States is strengthening 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 a larger role in global stability to challenge US influence.
“Compared to China's previous diplomatic actions, this 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 resolving regional conflicts.”
Keith Bradsher Olivia WangAnd Ivan Nechepurenko reporting contribution.