Over the past year the West has tried to cajole China to help them end the Ukraine war. Now Beijing has given its firmest response yet – and it’s not something many in the West would like.
In recent days, China has launched an assertive charm offensive, kicking off with top diplomat Wang Yi’s tour of Europe which culminated in a warm welcome by Vladimir Putin in Moscow.
Beijing has released not one but two position papers – the first offering the Chinese solution to the war and the other outlining a plan for world peace. These largely retread the talking points China has reiterated in the past year, calling for respect for sovereignty (for Ukraine) and the protection of national security interests (for Russia), while opposing the use of unilateral sanctions (by the US).
The West may come away unimpressed – but convincing them was never likely the main goal for Beijing.
Firstly, it clearly seeks to position itself as a global peacemaker. An obvious clue about who it’s really trying to charm lies in one of its papers where it mentions engaging South East Asia, Africa and South America – the so-called Global South.
In preaching an alternative vision to a US-led world order, it is wooing the rest of the globe which is watching to see how the West handles the Ukraine crisis.
But another goal is to send a clear message to the US.
“There is an element of defiance,” said Alexander Korolev, an expert in Sino-Russian ties with the University of New South Wales. “It is signaling: ‘If things get ugly between us, I have someone to go to. Russia is not alone, which means that I will not be alone when there is a confrontation… don’t get comfortable in bullying me.'”
The timing, say observers, is a giveaway. Relations between the US and China have hit a new low, exacerbated by the spy balloon saga. Some have also questioned why China has made its big diplomatic push for Ukraine peace only now.
“China had ample opportunities to display leadership, it was invited early on to contribute to ending the war… If the goal was to truly display the image of a global leader, you don’t have to sit on the fence for one year and try to perform a diplomatic dance,” said Dr Korolev.
There was a third goal, and it could be seen in Mr Wang’s itinerary.
By visiting France, Germany, Italy and Hungary, whose leaders China perceives as taking less of a hardline stance on Russia, Mr Wang may have been testing the waters to see if China could lure some of Europe into China’s orbit.
Beijing sees a “logical convergence of interests” with these countries, said Zhang Xin, an international political economy expert with the East China Normal University. “It believes the US has hegemonic power, and that a large part of the Transatlantic world could benefit from detaching from that system.”
But whether China will succeed in that particular goal is questionable. Mr Wang’s speech at the Munich Security Conference where he criticized the US did not play well in a roomful of America’s staunchest allies and, according to diplomats, only spawned greater distrust of China’s true motives.
His tour “was a very overt push to say: ‘We don’t have problems with Europe, we have problems with the US, we can fix things with you Europeans and you need to understand that the US is leading you down a problematic road'”, said Andrew Small, a senior fellow specializing in Europe-China relations at the German Marshall Fund think tank.
“But I think in most places in Europe, this message doesn’t have much traction.”
The key question now is whether Beijing will live up to its word of making peace as it tightens its embrace of Russia.
The US has warned this week that China was considering supplying lethal weapons to Russia, and that Chinese firms had already been supplying non-lethal dual-use technology – items which could have both civilian and military uses, such as drones and semi-conductors.
Publicly China has reacted with angry rhetoric. But behind closed doors, Mr Wang made it clear to they will not provide weapons to Russia.
According to Mr Borrell, Mr Wang had also asked: “Why do you show concern for me maybe providing arms to Russia when you are providing arms to Ukraine?” It is a revealing line, say observers, showing how Beijing still truly believes the West is to blame for fuelling the war.
“Sending weapons to any warring party is considered as further escalation – that is the position of the Chinese state so far,” said Dr Zhang.
There is skepticism that Beijing would supply weapons to Moscow, given how it runs counter to Chinese interests.
Such a move would be seen by others as a clear escalation of the war, and would lead to sanctions and disruption of trade with the West – hugely damaging for China as the EU and US are among its top trading partners.
It would also raise global tensions significantly and likely push US allies further into America’s embrace, stymieing Beijing’s aims at wooing some of them as it mounts a challenge against the US.
What is more likely to happen, say observers, is that Beijing will continue or even step up indirect support, such as boosting economic trade which has provided a financial lifeline to Moscow, and abstaining from sanctions on
They may even supply more dual-use technology through third party states such as Iran or North Korea, according to Dr Small, so that they can lend support “as deniably as possible”.
But as the war drags on, the issue of giving lethal weapons will resurface, he warned.
“There hasn’t been a question yet on what kind of significant things China could be asked to do, because previously Russia didn’t need to resupply,” said Dr Small. “But they are hitting that juncture. How long is China willing to say to Russia it will not do it?”
Days before the outbreak of war in Ukraine, Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin declared they had a “friendship without limits”.
A year on, China will have to answer the question of how far it would go for its special friend.