China is becoming an active international conflict mediator. The United States government has questions about China’s goals and intentions, and about how to respond at a time when US-China relations are deteriorating. International mediation accords with China’s desire to maximize the global stability it needs for its own continued development. Chinese mediation can benefit the rest of the world too, including the United States; it can ease the US peacekeeping burden and engage both governments in cooperative efforts to bring traditional adversaries together.
Growing Chinese Leadership
Over the last decade, China has been steadily increasing its global presence through diplomacy, support for international organizations and bilateral investment projects. It has always been an assertive participant in international fora but is now assuming a leadership role. At the start of 2021, Chinese nationals held leading positions in five prominent UN organizations; their nominations stem from an increased desire to grow China’s influence in international settings. China has also taken the lead in establishing and growing “non-western” multilateral organizations, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.
Chinese leaders claim they are fostering a “new system of country-to-country relations” based on mutual benefits and interconnectedness. That’s a not-so-subtle criticism of the old US-led system that aspired to the same values. The key difference, from China’s point of view, is their new system will create a multipolar world order, rather than a unipolar or bipolar world order, in which China is seen as a positive contributor to global stability and growth.
That effort has grown to encompass international mediation. Early in 2023 China brokered a deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia to restore diplomatic ties and direct contact between the two regional heavyweights, and aspiring leaders of Shia and Sunni Muslims, for the first time in seven years.
More controversially, not long after Chinese president Xi Jinping visited Russia, China introduced a twelve-point framework for negotiations between Russia and Ukraine on a cessation of hostilities. The proposal focused on respecting sovereignty, protecting civilians, minimizing nuclear risks, reducing the impact on critical supply chains and grain exports, conducting peace talks, and “abandoning the Cold War mentality”. The latter is China’s way of criticizing NATO for pursuing bloc confrontation and posing a security threat to Russia. The United States has been critical of the proposal, questioning China’s ability to act as an impartial mediator.
Defusing international tensions and bringing adversaries to the negotiating table benefits the entire global community. This is especially true regarding the war in Ukraine, which has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, has seen Russia increasingly resort to nuclear posturing over the last twelve months, and has been a significant factor in food shortages and soaring prices, especially in the global south.
At a recent Asia Society panel discussion on China’s emergence as a mediator, former US Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk said oil purchases from both Saudi Arabia and Iran were a key motivating factor for Chinese mediation between the two. Until now, he argued, China has “freeloaded” on American security guarantees in the Persian Gulf. Beijing’s decision to take increased responsibility for stability in the Middle East, Indyk argued, is a positive for President Biden, who made a campaign promise to end the war in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia and Iran have been arming opposing sides. Friendlier relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran increase the likelihood of a lasting peace. So far, US officials have reacted positively to the China-brokered rapprochement.
But the United States rebuked China’s proposed framework for peace in Ukraine, with Secretary of State Anthony Blinken suggested that the peace plan could be a “stalling tactic” to buy time for Russian mobilization.
It is hard to see China as a truly impartial actor in the conflict, despite Xi Jinping’s claims to the contrary. Xi and Vladimir Putin’s joint declaration of a “no-limits friendship” between China and Russia on the eve of the invasion, as well as Chinese adherence to Russian talking points when describing the war, suggest an inclination towards the Russian side. According to Daniel Russel, Vice President for International Security and Diplomacy at the Asia Society Policy Institute, China’s warm relationship with Russia is dissuading many in Washington from seeking to repair US-China relations.
However, China has always been careful to distinguish between a friendship and an alliance. After a call with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in January, China’s newly appointed Foreign Minister Qin Gang emphasized that the relationship is based on “non-alignment, non-confrontation and non-direction at the third party.” Former US Ambassador to Russia Thomas Pickering noted that China has shifted towards a more balanced position as the war has progressed. It’s discussing a cessation of hostilities, negotiations, and a reduction of nuclear risks. The latter features prominently on the list of international concerns. Securing guarantees against the use or threatened use of nuclear weapons and the safeguarding of nuclear power plants would be a meaningful accomplishment, even if a lasting peace takes longer to achieve.
How should the US respond?
The United States should cooperate with China for the sake of mutually beneficial international stability, which would be welcome by many US allies and partners who are concerned about rising US-China tensions. Anxiety about the possible erosion of US global influence is understandable, especially when a long-time ally like Saudi Arabia is willing to explore other options. French President Emmanuel Macron’s suggestion that Europe should “reduce its dependency” on the United States is equally unsettling, especially his admonition that Europe should not be “caught up in crises that are not ours” when referring to Taiwan.
Finding common ground with China when it’s possible could help relieve allied doubts about the direction of US-China policy. Following the advice of Senator Marco Rubio, who suggested the United States pull out of Ukraine and let Europe handle it, would most likely increase allied disenchantment with the United States and increase opportunities for China to lead.
The experts at the Asia Society described China’s foreign policy as “value neutral”: characterized by a willingness to engage with countries regardless of their political system, and to invest without attaching the same requirements as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) or World Bank, like government debt ceilings or State-Owned Enterprise reform. More importantly, they said that countries welcome this value neutral approach. During his visit to Beijing, Macron pressed Xi to increase China’s role in mediating the conflict in Ukraine, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has repeatedly expressed his desire for a conversation with Xi. China is positioning itself to play a role in the reconstruction of post-war Ukraine, which makes sense given the already robust economic connections between the two countries. This is likely a significant part of China’s motive for seeking a resolution to the war that neither politically destabilizes its friend Russia nor wipes out its investments in Ukraine.
Regardless of the underlying motives, the leadership in Beijing seems determined to continue to play the role of international peacemaker. Some argue that the war ending on Chinese-brokered terms would weaken the “democratic world”, which should therefore strategically limit China’s role in Ukraine. But it might be better for the United States to work with China to negotiate a peaceful resolution to the conflict. Cooperation could minimize the potential threat to US global influence, signaling to the world that Washington will remain an engaged global mediator and peacekeeper.