September 2023

The politics of peace

Tanya Vatsa reports on the latest efforts to broker peace between Moscow and Kyiv, and considers what China’s timely intervention hopes to achieve

The Russo-Ukraine conflict has been raging for almost one-and-a-half years with no decisive victory at either end. This protracted war has severely strained geopolitical and economic nerves across the globe. With differences in their approaches, several nations have attempted to initiate dialogue between the warring parties. Peace talks were arranged in Copenhagen earlier this year, and Saudi Arabia has joined the bandwagon of diplomatic power brokers by hosting a successive August summit in the port city of Jeddah to build on the initiative. The two conferences were similar in their exclusion of Russia, but Jeddah emerged as the more successful, with the participation of China.

Proclaiming itself as a neutral party hoping to end the current crisis, Beijing put forth a peace plan for Ukraine after its conspicuous absence from the Copenhagen forum. With most major Western powers having sided with Kyiv, it is clear that the onus is on the global East and the global South to hammer out an acceptable peace deal on both sides.

For some time now the invasion has been showing chinks in the Russian armour, and Moscow is now on the verge of a humiliating defeat as its resources run dry. With Western resources fuelling Kyiv’s war machinery, China has been inconsistent in its words and actions regarding the invasion since its inception. On the one hand, Beijing declared support for Kyiv’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. On the other, it signed a joint declaration with Moscow condemning Washington and its military alliance for not paying heed to Russian concerns.

Chinese and other representatives at the Aug. 5 -6 Jeddah talks
TALKING PEACE: Representatives from China attended the Aug. 5/6 talks on Ukraine in Jeddah

Beijing’s attempt to negotiate peace in this battle is multi-pronged and rides on the back of its success in the Saudi-Iran talks. The opening of dialogue between these two formerly antagonistic nations was not only a monumental shift in the status quo but also massively detrimental to American interests. For China, it served multiple purposes, much like the current intervention is likely to do. Beijing is known for its rhetorical policy of respecting territorial integrity and the right to self-determination (despite its territorial disputes with almost all of its immediate neighbours). It, however, has vested interests in Moscow, and a weakened Putin administration will not bode well for its ‘all weather’ friend.

The mediation has its roots in challenging and consequently replacing the West-dominated world order by emerging as an anchor, specifically in the Global South and East. Beijing has planted stakes in its side of the globe and wishes to show itself as a capable contender in the power vacuum. At the same time, it must protect its economic footprints in both Kyiv and Moscow. The end of war will ensure that Chinese investments in Ukraine remain protected and an opportunity to fund the reconstruction of the post-war country would provide further in-roads. At the same time, Sino-Russo trade has hit the ceiling, given the Western embargo, as Beijing continues to support Moscow financially and politically in its endeavours. China has not only benefited from the discounted Russian energy resources but is also eyeing the market availability as Western firms leave Moscow.

Beijing’s attempt to negotiate peace in this battle is multi-pronged

The peace proposal does not come in a vacuum. It has been well thought out and crafted, in keeping with Beijing’s Global Security Initiative. China has firmly taken a step towards championing global peace and security. However, it chooses its battles wisely and, notably, they mostly involve nations that are at odds with the West. In the previous case it was Tehran and in the current situation, it is Moscow. This specific aspect gives Beijing an upper hand and a position that the Western flag-bearers of peace cannot challenge. The well-calculated and timely move also comes as Beijing looks to boost its relations and trade with Europe. Irrespective of what lies behind the actions, the action itself is benign and can hardly be vocally challenged, considering it is the only step towards a real solution.

The end of war will ensure that Chinese investments in Ukraine remain protected

Yet the question remains: does China believe it can bring about an end to this war, reinstate Kyiv’s sovereignty and save Moscow from an impending defeat? Putin’s Soviet ambition is not limited to, and therefore unlikely to end with, Ukraine. Previous instances of invasions in the region, like those in Georgia and Crimea, are evidence enough that this will not mark the end of Russia’s attempts at regaining its former regional dominance. Kyiv’s resistance was clearly a first and a massive blow to Moscow’s plans of territorial capture.

Putin’s Soviet ambition is not limited to Ukraine

Beijing is aware that the chances of an immediate armistice are very bleak and it would not be wrong to declare that its attempt at establishing peace is also driven by a need to find relevance in the battle that has currently consumed all actors globally. In addition to political relevance, it benefits Beijing’s reputation and, despite its support for Moscow, puts it on the right side of history.

Whether China can be pushed to pressure Moscow into a compromise is a looming question. Is it too optimistic to believe that Beijing is here to negotiate with Moscow, rather than on its behalf? Positioning itself as a neutral party, promising financial recovery to the war-hit Ukrainian cities, China seems to be preparing to covertly challenge NATO’s might by winning a diplomatic war and losing nothing in the process. Beijing is more likely to convince Kyiv to soften its stance in order to bring the Kremlin to the table. It need not bring about a compromise to emerge as the next influential power broker in the East; all that is required of Beijing is to open a channel for dialogue between both sides and that itself would place it at a higher level in the current geopolitical power dynamic. Such delicate diplomacy might, as a collateral advantage, open avenues for an armistice, legitimising China’s leadership.

Tanya Vatsa, a law graduate from National Law University, Lucknow and an incoming LLM candidate at the University of Edinburgh, is a former assistant advocate. She is currently a geopolitical analyst with The Synergia Foundation, an India-based think tank. Her writing on international relations has been published by the Diplomatist, International Policy Digest and The Kootneeti