Casualties are mounting in Ukraine. Bombs continue to fall. More than 2 million refugees have fled the fighting.
Vladimir Putin seems to have assumed he could get a swift victory, underestimating the fierce resistance from Ukraine. Two weeks in, Russia is intensifying its assault on Ukraine, and Western nations in turn are intensifying their financial and economic punishments against Russia, including by triggering the financial “nuclear option” — banning some Russian banks from the SWIFT payment system. Meanwhile, Mr. Putin has put his actual nuclear forces on high alert.
We are now in an escalatory spiral. Mounting pressure on Mr. Putin will likely make the situation more dangerous as Russia’s leader feels pushed to take increasingly extreme measures — such as what we’ve seen in the past few days with the Russian army’s siege tactics and attacks on civilian areas.
And so, unpalatable as some in the West may find the idea, it is time to offer the Russian leader an offramp with China’s help. On Tuesday, President Xi Jinping of China held a virtual summit with President Emmanuel Macron of France and Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany, urging a diplomatic solution.
The United States and its allies might be reluctant to have China play any role in this crisis, given that they view Beijing as a strategic rival. That’s foolish and shortsighted; the conflict’s immediate dangers far outweigh any competitive considerations. Ukraine itself sees the potential of Chinese-led conflict resolution.
China has a significant economic interest in a quick resolution to the Russian-Ukrainian war. China enjoys strong ties with Russia and Ukraine and is both countries’ largest single trading partner, though each trades more with the E.U. bloc than with China. Russia and Ukraine are crucial components of the Belt and Road infrastructure program as well as conduits for China’s trade with Europe. China-Europe rail transports have experienced a hundredfold increase since the beginning of the 2010s, but the ongoing conflict threatens to disrupt these trade flows.
China is also uniquely positioned to act as a neutral mediator between a Western-supported Ukraine and Russia. Yes, Beijing and Moscow have a strong and growing relationship, especially in the economic realm. China’s demand for resources that Russia has in abundance — food and energy — as well as a mutual dissatisfaction with the current state of the U.S.-led world order have increasingly drawn the two countries together. This alliance was cemented when Mr. Putin and Mr. Xi met last month and issued a joint statement underscoring their deep ties and reaffirming a partnership with “no forbidden zones.”
It is not in Beijing’s interests to rely solely on an anti-Western alliance with Moscow. Russia may possess a mighty military, but its economy is in long-term structural decline, with a G.D.P. not much larger than that of Spain. For all the talk of ties with Moscow, it is worth remembering that China’s economic interests with Russia are dwarfed by those it shares with the West. In 2021, trade between China and Russia may have jumped by 36 percent compared to the prior year, to $147 billion — but that’s still less than a tenth of the combined trade with the United States ($657 billion) and European Union ($828 billion).
Even if China isn’t joining in the sanctions, it is possible that Chinese businesses and banks will decrease involvement with Russia to avoid a backlash in other, more important markets. As Russia becomes isolated from the world economy, China will not want to shoulder Russia’s economic burden alone.
The prospect of a growing economic relationship between Moscow and Beijing may be threatening to the West, but from Mr. Putin’s perspective, it provides China with leverage over him in potential negotiations. As he and his country face increasing isolation, he can’t afford to lose China, too.
There are also political reasons China wants this conflict to end in a way that is appealing to all involved. The longer the war lasts, the more it will reinvigorate the Western alliance around the idea of a values-based confrontation between East and West, bringing the United States and the European Union into even closer alignment while driving military budgets up around the globe. That is not good for China, which would prefer to maintain lucrative economic ties with the West and focus its resources on domestic development.
At a time when China faces increasing global criticism for its human rights violations, mediating an end to this conflict could help improve the country’s standing with the West. Beijing has long striven to convince political and business elites in Europe and America that the rise of China does not present a threat. Support for Russian aggression — even perceived support — threatens to undermine that assertion. By contrast, playing a constructive role in ending the war could help cast China as a strategic and not just economic partner.
Ideologically, China has common ground with both Ukraine and Russia. China deeply values the principle of state sovereignty and has long opposed outside interference in what it considers internal affairs such as Taiwan. Last month, Foreign Minister Wang Yi of China once again called for a global respect of territorial integrity, saying, “Ukraine is no exception.” In this way, at least, Mr. Putin’s invasion directly undercuts one of China’s key values.
China — like Russia — is wary of pro-democratic Western influence globally. So far, Chinese media has avoided criticism of Russia and even adopted Moscow’s narrative of the war. The two countries share grievances over perceived Western hostility and hypocrisy. Framing the invasion as anti-West and anti-NATO helps justify Mr. Putin’s action to a domestic audience.
The longer the war goes on, though, China may find itself in a position of diminishing returns in its close relationship with Russia. This makes the argument for Beijing to take on an active mediation role even more compelling.
What form could mediation take? Any serious resolution would have to involve the United States and the European Union as key actors in European security arrangements. Beijing could help to broker an immediate cease-fire as a prelude to talks among Russia, Ukraine, the United States, the European Union and China.
Beijing’s goal would be to find a solution that gives Mr. Putin sufficient security assurances that can be presented as a win to his domestic audience while protecting Ukraine’s core sovereignty and NATO’s open-door policy. Finding a landing zone for such an agreement is challenging but not impossible. Some creative diplomacy could solve this, such as a formula for NATO expansion that rules out Ukrainian membership in practice while preserving its sovereignty and NATO principles in theory.
Securing a multilateral resolution to the crisis in Ukraine will be a tough and risky challenge, but there is no country better placed to do so than China.
Dr. Wang Huiyao (@huiyaowang) is the founder and president of the Center for China and Globalization, a nongovernmental think tank based in Beijing. He advises the Chinese government in that capacity.