A flurry of high-stakes diplomacy -- with growing calls by Western officials for China to use its influence to pressure Russia to end its war in Ukraine -- has shifted the focus on Beijing's role as a potential mediator in the crisis.
The conversation for China to take the diplomatic mantle accelerated following a March 5 statement by Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba in which he said he had received assurances that "China is interested in stopping this war."
"Chinese diplomacy has sufficient tools to make a difference and we count that it is already involved and that their efforts will be successful," he said.
The statement from Kuleba was echoed by Western officials, such as Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who called on China to join the effort to stop the conflict, and European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, who told the Spanish newspaper El Mundo that Beijing could be a mediator in helping to find a diplomatic solution.
"We [Europeans] cannot be the mediators, that is clear.... And it cannot be the [United States] either. Who else?" Borrell said during the March 5 interview. "It has to be China, I trust in that."
While Beijing's potential role in brokering peace is under the spotlight, in large part due to its close ties with the Kremlin, some experts and diplomats have questioned China's credentials, motivation, and levers for influence to mediate and push for a diplomatic solution for the war.
"China is unlikely to play any serious mediating role in Ukraine," Ryan Hass, a Brookings Institution senior fellow and former director for China on the National Security Council, told RFE/RL. "At most, it may seek to burnish its diplomatic credentials by masquerading as a reliable channel, even as it continues to lean toward Moscow."
China's Diplomatic Dance
With doubts about Beijing's willingness to lean on Moscow, the EU appears to be focusing on pressuring China to use its influence with Russia to help broker a cease-fire and bring Moscow to the negotiating table, with Borrell speaking about the issue on March 7 with Chinese counterpart Wang Yi.
"China has the potential to reach out to Moscow because of their relationship, and we’d like China to use its influence to press for a cease-fire and make Russia stop the brutal, unprecedented shelling and killing of civilians in Ukraine," a European Commission spokesman said on March 7.
Beijing has built warm ties with Russia over the years, which were reaffirmed during a February 4 meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin at which the two leaders declared a “no limits” partnership.
China has tried to distance itself from Russia's offensive since it started on February 24 -- especially as the Kremlin shifted tactics and civilian areas were targeted -- while avoiding any criticism of Moscow.
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China has refrained from calling the war an "invasion" and said it recognized the "legitimate security concerns" of Russia. During a March 7 press conference, Wang referred to China's relationship with Moscow as "rock-solid" and hailed future prospects for cooperation.
At the same time, Beijing has tried to edge slightly away from Russia in statements, speaking about its "unwavering support for Ukraine's sovereignty," while adding that China is ready to make "every effort to end the war...through diplomacy." It has also expressed "regret" about the military action and concern for civilian casualties, signaling it could play a role in trying to broker a cease-fire.
"China still wants to occupy an in-between, gray area that allows it to keep relatively good relations with all parties," Francesca Ghiretti, an analyst at the Berlin-based think tank MERICS, told RFE/RL.
"The statements from Beijing have been rather consistent throughout.... At the moment, there is little to gain for China out of the role of mediator."
Some Western officials are hoping that, by adding public pressure on Beijing and calling its global image into question, China will shift its calculus.
During a visit to Lithuania on March 7, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken accused Beijing of hypocrisy, saying that, despite its rhetoric about "upholding the international order, stability, and respecting sovereignty," it still stood behind Moscow and that its "actions are speaking much louder than its words."
Despite the recent push on China, little progress seems to have been made.
An EU diplomat familiar with the issue told RFE/RL that there was currently nothing concrete about formal mediation involving China, despite the outreach from Brussels.
"Everybody who reaches out to Putin is welcome to do so," the diplomat said. "So far, he has not shown nor expressed to anyone any readiness to enter into any negotiations [or] mediation."
If Not A Mediator, Then What?
China and Russia have been drawn together by a shared antagonism toward the United States and a desire to push back at what they feel is Western pressure targeted against them.
While many experts and former officials say Beijing is highly unlikely to drop Moscow as a partner, they acknowledge that Russia's invasion of Ukraine and the human and political crisis it has caused does not sit well with China and that Beijing is currently recalibrating its position.
"China may have believed that this conflict was in its interests because it had the potential to distract the United States and sow transatlantic division," the Rhodium Group's Noah Barkin told RFE/RL. "Instead, it has brought the EU and [United States] closer together and triggered a foreign policy rethink in Europe that could boomerang on Beijing."
Citing a Western intelligence report, The New York Times reported that Chinese officials told their Russian counterparts in early February not to invade Ukraine before the end of the Winter Olympics in Beijing, though it was not clear whether Putin told Xi directly of any specific war plans for Ukraine.
Chinese officials rejected the report as "pure fake news," but it highlights the reputational and strategic risks that Beijing faces as it looks to save face with its public tethering to Russia and trying to shield itself from blowback to Moscow's invasion of Ukraine and its rising civilian death toll.
"Either Beijing misjudged Putin and the effect his attack on Ukraine would have on Western resolve, or it judged that the long-term benefits of this conflict would outweigh the short-term risks," Barkin said. "What seems clear is that China will have to start recalibrating its rhetoric soon or run the risk of losing Europe. Ukraine could well be a tipping point for EU-China relations."
This leaves Beijing with a difficult balancing act.
Chinese policymakers are wary about U.S. pressure in the Indo-Pacific region that could impede its continued global rise and they still see Russia as a needed partner in any future confrontation. But the fallout from Moscow's invasion is already proving to be a strategic headache for China.
According to Hass, who oversaw China policy on the National Security Council under U.S. President Barack Obama, "Beijing seems committed to sticking closely with Moscow" but there are still roles short of being a peace broker that China could be willing to play to help stabilize the situation in Ukraine.
"The United States and others would be best served engaging Beijing on discrete issues where China could make a constructive contribution," Hass said. "[Such as] humanitarian assistance to Ukraine, avoiding backfilling global sanctions on Russia, and not standing in the way of global efforts at the UN to ensure future accountability for [Moscow]."