China wants to act as a mediator in Ukraine, but remains close to Russia's side. Chinese scholar Wang Zichen explains what the West could do to get China on its side.
This interview is IPPEN. MEDIA in the course of a cooperation with the Europe.Table Professional Briefing – it was first published by Europe.Table on 6 June 2023.
Mr. Wang, we are in the second year of the Ukraine war – and China has stepped forward with the proposal for peace talks. At the same time, however, the leadership in Beijing maintains a "boundless" friendship with Russia. How serious is China's initiative?
I think China is pretty serious. It has thrown its political weight into the balance by sending a special envoy to Ukraine and five other targets. And as far as the "borderless" relationship with Russia is concerned, the Chinese envoy in Brussels has made it clear that this is merely rhetoric. I think Beijing is not happy about what is going on in Ukraine.
But is China ready to use its influence on Putin?
I understand that many in the West insist that China has enormous influence and can put pressure on Moscow. But the reality is much more complicated. The Chinese do not feel that they can push Moscow too strongly in one direction.
About the person
Wang Zichen is a deputy director and research fellow at the Center for China and Globalization (CCG), a leading non-governmental think tank in China.
On the other hand, without the support of China, Putin would be in big trouble.
Let me put it this way: Whenever a Chinese person looks at China on the world map, he or she sees an overpowering Russia, a huge country just above China. Russia had a huge influence on China throughout the 20th century. After many problems, it is only in the past decade or so that the two countries have become close geopolitical partners – especially with regard to what they perceive as containment and encirclement by the US. Russia's economic output may now be about as strong as that of Guangdong province, but in China's eyes it is still a superpower with a large nuclear arsenal and sophisticated technology. And don't forget: the border between China and Russia is thousands of kilometers long, which does not need to be guarded very hard if relations are good.
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As far as the initiative for a political solution is concerned, China has not interfered in crises in the past, especially not where China is not involved – unlike the United States, which likes to behave like the world's policeman. China's foreign policy has been based on non-interference since the 1950s. Therefore, it must now develop its own approach.
Absolutely, but in order to be an honest broker, you need at least a little distance from Russia.
Such demands by the West mean that China is making great sacrifices for its own interests, and in the end even angering Russia. If China were to comply with these demands and sanction Russia, it would mean that China would have to bear a high cost of something it did not cause.
Why is China so reluctant?
Not just China. Look at the votes at the United Nations: More than 140 countries have condemned Russia's invasion of Ukraine. But if you look at who has imposed sanctions on Russia, there are basically just over 40 countries left – and 27 of them are EU member states. No country in the Global South has joined the sanctions against Russia, including China, India and Brazil. The overwhelming majority of the world, especially poorer countries, don't feel obligated to bear the cost of something they don't think they started.
China and the Ukraine war: "This story is not shared in other parts of the world"
How important is this war for countries in Asia and the rest of the world?
I absolutely understand that it is very important for the EU, especially for the Eastern European countries bordering Ukraine, as they are the second biggest victims after the Ukrainian people. I have lived in Europe for 29 months and I admire the European project, it is a peace project. But for faraway countries, the conflict is something people see on TV and social media. In addition, the European Union, through its history and the Cold War, has been accustomed to protecting itself from Russian troops for many years. But this story is not shared in other parts of the world. And last but not least, perhaps more importantly, the countries of the Global South share a common history of colonialism. They share the feeling that developed countries have not behaved as they should. All of this leads to a sense of detachment from this conflict.
War is bad everywhere in the world, for everyone. That's why it should end quickly.
Yes. But the U.S. and Europe are only putting pressure on China. So far, they have not been able to create incentives to get China on their side. For Europe in particular, it would be more pragmatic to provide incentives.
In what way Europe?
Because there is very tough competition between China and the United States, which will continue for quite some time. In addition, Beijing obviously wants Europe to distance itself from its transatlantic partner and move it closer to China. So Europe has a certain amount of influence vis-à-vis a China eager to do so.
Ukraine war: CAI investment agreement as Chinese leverage?
What could or should Europe offer?
China's ambassador in Brussels has said several times that China wants to put the CAI Comprehensive Investment Agreement back on the table and is open to proposals. I think Europe is actually in a position to incentivise China instead of just putting pressure on China.
CAI could make all the difference?
If Europe were to consider this idea, I think there would be many options.
What do you mean?
For example, the lifting of US-initiated restrictions on Huawei and ZTE. Or refraining from joining the U.S. in export controls in the field of technology. This would send strong strategic signals of autonomy. This, in turn, could go well with a China that is committed to achieving European and Ukrainian goals, such as the exchange of prisoners of war, the establishment of humanitarian corridors for civilians, the repatriation of Ukrainian children and, ultimately, a ceasefire and peace.