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China as Peacemaker in the Ukraine War? The U.S. and Europe Are Skeptical.

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Chinese officials say Xi Jinping’s upcoming trip to Moscow is a peace mission. But U.S. and European officials say he aims to bolster Vladimir V. Putin.

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President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and President Xi Jinping of China stand in front Russian and Chinese flags.

A photograph released by Russian state media showing President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and President Xi Jinping of China in Beijing last year. Mr. Xi plans to visit the Russian president this week.Credit…Sputnik, via Reuters

March 19, 2023, 5:00 a.m. ET

WASHINGTON — As Xi Jinping, China’s leader, prepares to meet with President Vladimir V. Putin in Moscow this week, Chinese officials have been framing his trip as a mission of peace, one where he will seek to “play a constructive role in promoting talks” between Russia and Ukraine, as a government spokesman in Beijing put it.

But American and European officials are watching for something else altogether — whether Mr. Xi will add fuel to the full-scale war that Mr. Putin began more than a year ago.

U.S. officials say China is still considering giving weapons — mainly artillery shells — to Russia for use in Ukraine. And even a call by Mr. Xi for a cease-fire would amount to an effort to strengthen Mr. Putin’s battlefield position, they say, by leaving Russia in control of more territory than when the invasion began.

A cease-fire now would be “effectively the ratification of Russian conquest,” John Kirby, a White House spokesman, said on Friday. “It would in effect recognize Russia’s gains and its attempt to conquer its neighbor’s territory by force, allowing Russian troops to continue to occupy sovereign Ukrainian territory.”

“It would be a classic part of the China playbook,” he added, for Chinese officials to come out of the meeting claiming “we’re the ones calling for an end to the fighting and nobody else is.”

That skepticism of one of Mr. Xi’s stated goals pervades thinking in Washington and some European capitals. American intelligence agencies have concluded that relations between China and Russia have deepened during the war, even as Russia has become isolated from many other nations.

The two countries continue to do joint military exercises, and Beijing has joined Moscow in regularly denouncing the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. China remains one of the biggest buyers of Russian oil, which has helped Moscow finance its invasion.

Chinese officials have at no point condemned the invasion. Instead, they have said ambiguously that all nations must respect each other’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. They have worked with Russian diplomats to block international statements condemning the war, including at gatherings of the Group of 20 countries in India in February and March.

While some Chinese officials see Mr. Putin’s war as destabilizing, they recognize a greater priority in foreign policy: the need to buttress Russia so the two nations can present a united front against their perceived adversary, the United States.

Mr. Xi made his views clear when he said earlier this month at an annual political meeting in Beijing that “Western countries led by the United States have implemented all-around containment, encirclement and suppression of China, which has brought unprecedented severe challenges to our country’s development.”

But China remains firmly anchored in the global economy, and Mr. Xi and his aides want to avoid being seen as malign actors on the world stage, especially in the eyes of Europe, a major trade partner. Some analysts say Mr. Xi has adopted the guise of peacemaker, claiming he is on a mission to end the war to provide cover for efforts to strengthen his partnership with Mr. Putin, whom the International Criminal Court on Friday formally accused of war crimes in an arrest warrant.

Mr. Xi and Mr. Putin have a strong personal affinity and have met 39 times since Mr. Xi became China’s leader in 2012.

China’s release last month of a 12-point statement of broad principles on the war was an attempt at creating a smoke screen of neutrality during planning for Mr. Xi’s trip, some analysts say.

“I think China is trying to muddy the picture, to say we’re not there to support Russia, we’re there to support peace,” said Yun Sun, a scholar of China’s foreign policy at the Stimson Center in Washington.

“There’s an intrinsic need for China to maintain or protect the health of its relationship with Russia,” she said, adding that a senior Chinese official had told her that geopolitics and U.S. intransigence were driving Beijing’s approach to the relationship — not love of Russia.

Ms. Sun said China’s recent mediation of an initial diplomatic rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran had boosted notions of China as a peacemaker. But that situation was entirely different than the Ukraine war — the two Middle Eastern nations had already been in talks for years to try to restart formal diplomacy, and China entered the picture as both sides reached for a deal. China is not a close partner of either country and has a very specific economic interest in preventing the two from escalating their hostilities — it buys large amounts of oil from both.

When Mr. Putin visited Mr. Xi in Beijing right before the start of the Ukraine war in February 2022, their governments proclaimed a “no-limits” partnership in a 5,000-word statement. The two men saw each other again last September at a security conference in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. Mr. Xi has not talked to Volodymyr Zelensky, the president of Ukraine, since the war began, much less ask for his perspective on peace talks.

Mr. Zelensky has said he would enter peace talks only if Mr. Putin withdrew his troops from Ukrainian territory. That includes the Crimean Peninsula, which the Russian military seized in 2014, and the Donbas region, where that same year Russian troops stoked a pro-Russia separatist insurgency.

Mr. Zelensky has said he would welcome a chance to speak with Mr. Xi, and some Ukrainian officials hold out hope that China will eventually exercise its leverage over Russia to get Mr. Putin to withdraw his troops. But China has not indicated it would make any such move.

On Thursday, Qin Gang, the foreign minister of China, spoke by phone with Dmytro Kuleba, the foreign minister of Ukraine, and stressed that the warring sides should “resume peace talks” and “return to the track of political settlement,” according to a Chinese summary of the conversation.

In an interview with the BBC before Mr. Xi’s visit was announced, Mr. Kuleba said he believed China was neither ready to arm Russia nor bring about peace. “The visit to Moscow in itself is a message, but I don’t think it will have any immediate consequences,” he said.

Analysts in Washington concur. “I don’t think China can serve as a fulcrum on which any Ukraine peace process could move,” said Ryan Hass, a former U.S. diplomat to China and White House official who is a scholar at the Brookings Institution.

Mr. Hass added that China would have a role as part of a signing or guaranteeing group for any eventual peace deal and would be critical to Ukraine’s reconstruction. “I believe Zelensky understands this, which is why he has been willing to exercise so much patience with China and with Xi personally,” he said.

European officials have had varying attitudes toward China, and some prioritize preserving trade ties with Beijing. But China’s alignment with Russia throughout the war has spurred growing suspicion and hostility in many corners of Europe. On Friday, some officials reacted warily to the announcement of Mr. Xi’s trip to Moscow — they saw it as a further sign of China’s friendship if not alliance with Russia, as well as an effort by China to present itself as a mediator in the war.

Wang Yi, China’s top foreign policy official, stressed the need for peace talks at the Munich Security Conference late last month before a stop in Moscow. He used language that appeared aimed at peeling European nations away from the United States.

“We need to think calmly, especially our friends in Europe, about what efforts should be made to stop the warfare; what framework should there be to bring lasting peace to Europe; what role should Europe play to manifest its strategic autonomy,” he said.

He suggested that Washington wanted the war to continue to further weaken Russia. “Some forces might not want to see peace talks materialize,” he said. “They don’t care about the life and death of Ukrainians or the harms on Europe. They might have strategic goals larger than Ukraine itself. This warfare must not continue.”

But China’s 12-point statement did not go over well in Europe. And many European officials, like their Ukrainian and American counterparts, are convinced that early talks on a peace settlement will be at the expense of Ukrainian sovereignty.

Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, said China’s stance was anything but neutral.

“It is not a peace plan, but principles that they shared,” she said of China’s statement. “You have to see them against a specific backdrop. And that is the backdrop that China has taken sides, by signing for example an unlimited friendship right before Russia’s invasion in Ukraine started.”

China’s regular denunciations of NATO make European officials bristle. In its position paper, China said “the security of a region should not be achieved by strengthening or expanding military blocs” — a statement that supports Mr. Putin’s claim that he had to invade Ukraine because of threats that included NATO expansion.

The Chinese position “builds on a misplaced focus on the so-called ‘legitimate security interests and concerns’ of parties, implying a justification for Russia’s illegal invasion, and blurring the roles of the aggressor and the aggressed,” said Nabila Massrali, a spokeswoman for foreign affairs and security policy at the European Union.

Jens Stoltenberg, the NATO secretary general, put it more simply: “China doesn’t have much credibility,” especially because “they have not been able to condemn the illegal invasion of Ukraine.”

Edward Wong reported from Washington, and Steven Erlanger from Brussels. Julian E. Barnes contributed reporting from Washington.

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