The crux of the matter boils down to whether China has the diplomatic prowess and leverage to assume a role as peacemaker in the conflict and how it can manoeuvre to achieve such an objective.
The vestiges of the Cold War continue to inform Russia’s relationship with the West and Kyiv’s diplomatic reliance on Western powers further fuels Moscow’s distrust. Amid this difficult situation, Beijing emerges as a potentially viable mediator. Russia’s endorsement of China’s 12-point peace plan and Ukraine’s initial favourable response to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Moscow bolster China’s position.
Despite widespread scepticism, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky extended an invitation to Xi to visit Kyiv. The invitation emphasised China’s potential role in the negotiation process. China’s growing clout in global politics and diplomatic experience, as Beijing’s role in mediating the Saudi Arabia–Iran conflict in March 2023 demonstrated, may equip it well for such a complex task.
There are reasons to believe China is ready and willing to serve as a mediator or peacemaker in the Russia–Ukraine conflict. China’s diplomatic playbook consists of strategic major-country diplomacy initiatives aimed at fostering a global community with a shared future. This diplomatic strategy sets China apart from traditional realist perceptions of alliances.
China aims to establish itself as a supporter of the liberal world order. China maintains an aloof stance on the war and has asserted that it is ‘neither an instigator nor a party to the crisis’. This non-aligned stance underscores China’s bid for a peace-oriented global image that is distinct from traditional great powers’ roles in conflicts.
China’s broader geopolitical concerns further bolster its motivation to play a mediator role in the conflict. China’s diplomatic rift with the United States, tensions in the Taiwan Strait and the overall East Asian power dynamics are pushing Beijing to reassess the stability of its western periphery. Resolving the Russia–Ukraine conflict would allow China to concentrate more intensively on its Eastern front and further its security interests.
China’s diplomatic approach is multi-pronged and nuanced. Its primary strategy was to encourage Russia towards dialogue. China’s diplomatic leverage hinges on Russia’s receptiveness to dialogue — an aspect that Xi emphasised in his talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin. But critics argue that China has not exerted enough pressure on Russia, prolonging the conflict and exacerbating Ukraine’s suffering.
China’s broader diplomatic philosophy rebuffs the notion of hierarchical power dynamics between nations — a principle echoed in its 12-point peace plan. From Beijing’s perspective, enforcing a resolution could deepen mistrust with Moscow, escalate long-term diplomatic tensions and risk casting China as a hegemonic power. This strategy could undermine China’s carefully cultivated image as a promoter of global peace.
China’s diplomatic intent appears primarily focused on stabilising Russia — assuaging Russia’s aggression and encouraging it towards peace talks — and then initiating ceasefire negotiations with Ukraine. This strategy was hinted at in Xi’s conversation with Zelensky, in which he emphasised that ‘dialogue and negotiations are the only viable paths forward’. Should Ukraine acquiesce to this diplomatic approach, it would lay the groundwork for further China-led engagement.
China has maintained an active presence in wider diplomatic endeavours in an effort to legitimise its role as a mediator. Encouraging endorsements from international figures, such as the leaders of France, Brazil and Spain, aid China’s aspirations to facilitate a ceasefire. China’s special envoy on Eurasian affairs, Li Hui, has been on a diplomatic marathon, engaging with key stakeholders in Ukraine, Poland, France, Germany and Russia. While these deliberate diplomatic interventions have not yet yielded substantive outcomes, they highlight China’s commitment to resolving the conflict.
But playing a mediator role could be a high-stakes gamble for China. Both Russia and Ukraine hold entrenched positions and the requisite conditions for dialogue — a genuine commitment to negotiation and a ceasefire — are missing. While there’s a certain plausibility to Xi’s assertion that ‘dialogue and negotiations are the only viable way forward’, it contrasts with the United States’ decision to back its allies in training Ukrainian forces to operate F-16 fighter jets.
The US move to enable the supply of Western jets to Ukraine could intensify the conflict and render Beijing’s mediation efforts futile, casting a shadow over China’s image as a peace broker.
While the culmination of China’s mediation efforts remains uncertain, the success of China’s role in resolving the Russia–Ukraine conflict depends on its diplomatic capabilities and the dynamics of global politics. The international community is keenly observing China’s careful diplomatic manoeuvring amid the escalating tensions.
The tangible impact and effectiveness of China’s mediation will ultimately be evaluated on the basis of its ability to bring about a swift and peaceful resolution to the conflict — a metric that underscores the urgency of solving this international crisis.
Xiaoli Guo is Visiting Fellow at the Australian Centre on China at the World at The Australian National University.