The White House welcomed the news on Friday that China had facilitated a deal to restore diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran. “We support any efforts to de-escalate tensions there and in the region. We think it’s in our interests,” said spokesperson John Kirby. So why hasn’t Washington expressed the same openness to efforts by China to promote its peace deal for the war in Ukraine?
The Chinese plan was met with reflexive dismissal by the national security advisors to both President Joe Biden and former president Donald Trump. Jake Sullivan suggested the first point of the 12-point plan — i.e., to respect the sovereignty of all countries — made the other points moot. “This war could end tomorrow if Russia… withdrew its forces,” he concluded. When a Sullivan predecessor, John Bolton, was asked about the plan, he went so far as to say China poses a greater threat to Ukraine than it does to Taiwan, because “China’s in this with both feet on Russia’s side.”
If that’s true, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy certainly didn’t get the memo. He reportedly sees merit in parts of China’s plan, and looks forward to discussing it with China’s leaders. In fact, it was just reported that Chinese President Xi Jinping plans to meet virtually with Zelenskyy when he’s in Moscow next week to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin. According to Zelenskyy, “The more countries, especially… large ones, influential ones, think about how to end the war in Ukraine while respecting our sovereignty, with a just peace, the sooner it will happen.”
Ukraine’s openness to China’s involvement makes sense. The plan isn’t stacked in Russia’s favor, despite the two nations’ supposed “friendship without limits” (a characterization that has proven overblown). Besides urging respect for Ukraine’s sovereignty, it contains quite a few elements which also should make Russia bristle: protecting civilians, condemning threats to use nuclear weapons and ending interference with humanitarian aid.
Importantly, Ukraine will also want to maintain good relations with China when the war is over. The cost to rebuild its infrastructure will likely exceed what the West is willing or able to provide, and the plan concludes by stating China’s desire to join the international community in supporting post-conflict reconstruction.
To be clear, this isn’t an argument for the Chinese plan itself. The plan is thin on details, and an immediate ceasefire could freeze Russia’s territorial gains in place and sap Ukrainian battlefield momentum. When China didn’t vote with the majority of countries at the United Nations to condemn Russia’s invasion as illegal, China’s judgment and impartiality were rightly questioned. Beijing also might be motivated as much by a desire to boost its international reputation as a desire to effect peace.
But when creative diplomacy is the only alternative to a costly and expensive forever war, no diplomatic effort should be summarily brushed aside. The Biden administration should see this as an opportunity to work collaboratively with China, to combine the clout each has with one of the combatants to, say, co-host negotiations which ultimately reaffirm Ukraine’s sovereignty and assure its future security. Unfortunately, Washington seems so allergic to the prospect of China playing a major diplomatic role that it is blind to the reality that U.S. interests might be well served by a Chinese diplomatic success.
Many analysts and U.S. officials have long believed that Ukraine will be unable to retake all of its territory by force, and that ending the war will require a diplomatic settlement. Well-entrenched Russian forces cannot be expelled from Crimea without the sort of Western-backed Ukrainian offensive which would risk triggering Russia’s use of nuclear weapons. Though it publicly supports Ukraine’s right to recapture Crimea, the Biden administration shrewdly refuses to supply Ukraine’s military with the long-range missiles such an effort would require, and privately asked Zelenskyy to remain open to negotiations.
Within the administration, the military leadership has shown the most prudence. I recently sat down with Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for an upcoming episode of Eurasia Group Foundation’s None Of The Above podcast, and he said neither Russia nor Ukraine is likely to achieve their “complete political objectives through military means.” Instead, he insists the war will probably end when “somewhere, somehow, someone’s going to figure out how to get to a negotiating table.” When asked if the U.S. should take any peace plan seriously, regardless of whether it came from Italy, Turkey or even China, Milley didn’t disagree.
A negotiated outcome would be morally unsatisfying compared to a decisive defeat and Russia’s full withdrawal from occupied Ukrainian territory. But such a withdrawal remains improbable given the harsh realities of Russia’s degraded but still-considerable military capacity, continued resolve to fight and nuclear posture. The decision about whether and how to negotiate ultimately belongs to the leaders of Ukraine and Russia alone, not the U.S. (or China). But we should not automatically dismiss peace overtures from perhaps the only country which possesses both close diplomatic ties with and considerable economic leverage over Russia.
If Putin’s battlefield failures continue to mount, pressure from China could help bring him to the negotiating table. America’s approach to ending the war in Ukraine should recognize these realities. It should also recognize the hypocrisy inherent in touting Ukraine’s agency when it prosecutes war, but not when it pursues peace.
The Biden administration’s tendency to cast international politics as a grand struggle between democracy and autocracy could muddy its strategic calculations. The president stated it would not be “rational” for China to assist with peace negotiations, reinforcing a notion that autocratic countries simply can’t play a constructive role in resolving the war which happens to pit an autocracy against a democracy.
Such an ideologically inflected approach ignores the possibility that successful diplomacy is often based on shared interests, not just shared values. China might not share America’s frustration with Russia’s challenge to the Western-led geopolitical order, but Chinese leaders want to limit economic disruptions and nuclear escalation risk. We can criticize China’s form of government and human rights violations while appreciating their rational interests in ending the war.
Ukraine is fighting a just and courageous battle, and the Biden administration’s support for Kyiv has been at turns generous and judicious. But as the stakes, costs and risks increase, the U.S. will want to accelerate the end of hostilities.
If China can actually help Ukraine reach mutually acceptable terms with the country that invaded it, killed scores of its people and occupied its territory, surely the U.S. can muster the humility to permit its main geopolitical rival a diplomatic victory. After all, true diplomacy requires working with competitors, not just friends. In his State of the Union address, Biden said he is “committed to work with China where it can advance American interests and benefit the world.” This could be the first real test of that commitment. In Ukraine, China’s win need not be America’s loss.
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