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Beijing backchannel

Beijing backchannel

Xi Jinping doesn’t want to let the Ukraine “crisis” go to waste

Russia urgently needs China’s help – as a supplier of weapons and a buyer of its energy. Could China use this leverage to end the war? It seems to think so.

A source close to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) tells Tortoise the party’s leadership believes it could bring about an immediate ceasefire between Russian and Ukraine and host peace-talks between Russia, Ukraine, the USA and the EU. And there is confidence in the CCP that Xi Jinping could help deliver a peace deal that guaranteed Ukrainian sovereignty and assured Putin Ukraine would not become a member of Nato.

Other countries, notably Turkey and Israel, have offered to broker talks, and there would be conditions attached to any Chinese plan – conditions the US would be unlikely to accept (see below). That could help explain why talks between the US national security advisor and China’s top foreign policy official in Rome on Monday were so “intense” and went on for seven hours.

Even so, there are signs that China is trying to send a set of messages that aren’t getting through.

Vladimir Putin during the opening ceremony of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing

A timeline 

4 February. At the start of the Beijing Winter Olympics, 20 days before the invasion of Ukraine, Xi and Putin agree a “no limits” Sino-Russian friendship pact. Then and since, the CCP claims to be neutral on what it calls the “Ukraine crisis”. China continues to trade as usual with Russia, while also sending humanitarian aid to Ukraine.

8 March. Xi calls for “maximum restraint” and indicates in a meeting with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz that he would be willing to help mediate between Russia and Ukraine. 

14 March. On Monday this week US National Security advisor Jake Sullivan and his Chinese counterpart, Yang Jiechi, meet in Rome. Sullivan makes clear the US will sanction China if it supports Russia and there is little sign of progress after seven hours.

The readout: Chinese officials denied plans to send war materiel or aid to Russia but the US delegation left Rome fearing Chinese support for Putin was likely to continue or increase.

Members of the Chinese diplomatic delegation in Rome to meet with US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan

To note, part 1: 

  • Xi Jinping has one overarching goal this year – to secure his third term in office. In 2018 he revised China’s constitution to allow him to continue as party chairman indefinitely, but his second term ends in November and his extended stay at the top of the CCP needs to be managed carefully. He needs stability and to keep growth on target. The economy is slowing, the war is costing him, and he can’t afford to be further sanctioned by the US for supporting Putin.
  • China’s economic relationship with Russia is worth a fraction of its trade with the EU and the US – by one estimate, a twenty-fifth. So if commerce were the only factor it would be clear where China’s interests lay. But…
  • Xi has realised he can leverage his position as potential peacemaker. He wants to be incentivised rather than bullied or threatened. Our source says Xi wants the process to produce a more “friendly environment” for China. 

What might that mean? What inducements would get Xi to bring Putin to talks? Xi would like an end to China-bashing by the West. He’d like peace in the US-China trade-war (which Biden has so far ruled out). He’d like Sino-US relations to be normalised and US economic sanctions and trade tariffs on China to be reduced. He’d like less US naval activity in the Taiwan Strait. He’d like the EU to sign its pending comprehensive deal on investment with China. And when the UN High Commissioner visits Xinjiang in May this year, he’d like her to say that there’s no genocide taking place there. 

This is a version of how Beijing would like its dialogue with the West to be seen – a version western negotiators might not recognise, let alone accept. But it’s less confrontational than some competing views within China, including those of hawks inclined to double down on the “no limits” pact with military backing for Russia. 

To note, part 2:

  • Xi feels aggrieved that Biden and other Western leaders boycotted the Winter Olympics. At the opening ceremony he sat, socially distanced, in the bleachers of Beijing’s Bird’s Nest stadium with Putin (falling asleep) for company.
  • From Biden’s point of view the incarceration of a million Uighurs in Xinjiang and the crushing of democracy in Hong Kong made the boycott an easy call. From Xi’s point of view the West left him little choice but to turn towards Russia.
  • He could now convene peace talks, but to make them happen the US and EU might have to give him something of what he wants instead of talking past each other.

Continue reading in today’s Sensemaker.

Past reporting

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