After the tour of Europe and Moscow by Wang Yi, the top Chinese diplomat, the Ukrainian president declared, in his press conference of February 24 in Kiev, that he wished to meet his counterpart, Xi Jinping.
China has just published a peace plan. In its twelve points, there is no condemnation of the Russian aggression of February 24, 2022, nor even an allusion to the war crimes committed by the Russian army on Ukrainian territory over the past year. But what interests President Zelensky is that it recalls the principle of inviolability of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of states, enshrined in the United Nations Charter.
Although a friend of the Russians, with whom it regularly conducts major military maneuvres, both naval and land, China has never recognised the annexation of Crimea, carried out by Vladimir Putin in March 2014.
To recognise such an annexation, which was the result of a unilateral referendum, would have been, for the Chinese, to open a dangerous path. The island of Taiwan has de facto governed itself since 1949. But all the permanent member powers of the UN Security Council recognise it as an integral part of China’s territory.
And there is a strong political current in Formosa, particularly among the young, to demand de jure secession and then independence for the island, which would be proclaimed after a referendum in which only the Taiwanese would be consulted.
Does China, which, with Iran, is the only powerful potential ally of Russia, have an interest in investing diplomatically to make peace in Ukraine? Some specialists think not. They believe that China does not mind if the Russians and Europeans are impoverished by such a confrontation, and that it is patiently waiting to pick up the pieces, especially in Siberia.
I personally believe that China does not like this war. As the world’s largest trading and manufacturing power, it hates sudden geopolitical upheavals. It seeks stability and predictability in its trading partners. Peace is much more profitable than war.
At their meeting in Beijing on February 4, 2022, on the sidelines of the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics, the Russian and Chinese presidents railed against America’s claim to establish a firm footprint on all five continents and to have its way in the world. But we have no evidence that Putin informed Xi Jinping of his plan to attack, twenty days later, his Ukrainian neighbour.
Officially, China does not deliver weapons to its Russian friends. The Washington establishment suspects the Chinese of wanting to do so. But US President Joe Biden admitted to a reporter that he had no proof that China had delivered weapons to Russia.
The Ukrainian president is right to approach his Chinese counterpart. Only Xi Jinping can reason with Putin and get Russia to renounce its territorial predations. It is of course unthinkable that the master of the Kremlin, if he wishes to remain in power, would capitulate to the Ukrainian president. But a Chinese mediator offers Putin an honorable way out. It saves face.
Giving in to the demands of his “friend” in Beijing, in the name of preserving world peace, is different from capitulating to a Ukraine to which he denied, in an article he published in July 2021, the historical quality of nationhood.
In his Moscow speech of 21 March 2023, Vladimir Putin used the rhetorical device of accusatory inversion to castigate NATO, Russia’s ‘aggressor’. By presenting himself as the victim of aggression, he legitimises asking his Chinese friend for help.
Putin would like China to behave towards Russia in the same way that NATO behaves towards Ukraine.
It is as if we have reached a tipping point in the war. Either China chooses the diplomatic option or it embarks on military support for Russia. In the first case, Xi receives Zelensky at length in Beijing to start laying the foundations for a Chinese mediation, which Putin will not be able to refuse.
In the second case, China gives the Russians the means to continue the war indefinitely, while taking the risk of cutting themselves off from the West commercially.
In this great game, there remains one unknown: America’s strategy in this war. It has already gone through three phases: the call for regime change, pragmatism, and a hard line. It is hesitating as to what to do next.
For as much as it benefits greatly from a Europe that is more vassalised than ever, it does not want to push Russia firmly into the Chinese orbit.
This article was first published in Le Figaro.