On the level of political symbolism, China’s peacemaking efforts are directed toward Europe, which has long accused it of refusing to help end the conflict.
On a more practical level, Beijing seeks to build the diplomatic infrastructure for a future role as a mediator, facilitator or member of a group of intermediaries in the eventual ceasefire or peace negotiations. For this purpose, China’s dispatch of an envoy has established a mechanism of communicating with key parties and exploring their positions. Beijing has also advanced a program of ‘four musts’ for peace which is broad enough to interest Moscow and Kyiv, flexible enough to prevent any constraining commitments and vague enough to allow exploratory discussions of most issues.
These steps should not be mistaken for an attempt at substantive mediation. China is not ready to substantively mediate the conflict, as the risks of mediation are currently too high and neither side is willing to negotiate. China’s peace plan and its slowness in arranging a call between Xi and Zelensky and sending an envoy do not indicate a push to broker a negotiated settlement. The appointment of Li Hui as envoy — a former ambassador to Russia who is not particularly high-ranking or well-known — indicates that China is unwilling to invest too much political capital in this mission.
Beijing’s decision to play a more active peacemaking role is part of a push to improve its troubled relations with Europe. As Europe has emerged as a key battleground in the US–China competition, Beijing has striven to ensure that the European Union does not align closely with Washington or harm its economic interests and access to Western technology. As China’s pro-Russian ‘neutrality’ in the war has tested its relationship with the European Union, Beijing has made a huge effort to court Europe.
Beijing’s peacemaking efforts are a key component of this courtship. They signal to Europe that China does not support the Russian invasion, seeks peace in Europe and might be willing to pressure Russia to end the war. China’s peacemaking efforts come in response to Europe’s unambiguous message that China’s war policies will directly impact future EU–China relations, a message reinforced during European leaders’ April visits to China.
In this context, China seeks to improve its image in Europe, reduce Western pressure on Beijing and increase divisions within the Western camp. Beijing’s ultimate goal is to convince Europe that China is more of a partner than a rival.
But China’s approach might present a problem for its relations with the European Union. If the war continues long enough without negotiated progress toward peace, an impatient Europe might become disillusioned with China’s slow and cautious policy. Beijing will then face a dilemma — quickly make substantive, costly and difficult efforts at peacemaking or accept renewed tensions with Europe.
There are three reasons why Beijing has decided to launch its peacemaking efforts after waiting more than a year. Beijing seemingly believes that the international situation surrounding the war is shifting in response to war fatigue in the West and daylight between different NATO members on the end goal of supporting Ukraine and a military stalemate on the front.
The push for initiating mediation between the warring parties has also accelerated, with initiatives by Brazilian President Luiz Lula Inácio da Silva, the Vatican and African leaders. French President Emmanuel Macron has also called for a negotiated resolution of the conflict.
During their visits to Beijing in March and April 2023, European leaders not only pushed China to play a peacemaking role in Ukraine but also made such a role a precondition for improving EU–China relations — a key Chinese goal.
China’s recent moves do not currently represent an actual push to mediate the Russia–Ukraine conflict but rather an exploratory effort aimed at signalling Beijing’s willingness to end the war and establishing the basis for a more active peacemaking role in the future with Europe.
If and how fast China will embrace a more active peacemaking role depends on many unpredictable factors. These include the military situation in Ukraine following Kyiv’s counteroffensive, the force of the international push for a negotiated resolution of the war, Europe’s pressure on Beijing to act and the willingness of the combatants to negotiate. It will likely take some time before China engages in a more active peacemaking role in the conflict. Until then Beijing will work to set the stage and reassure Europe.
Ivan Lidarev is a foreign policy analyst and expert on Asian security and international relations, as well as a former advisor at Bulgaria’s National Assembly.