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Can China De-Escalate a Nuclear Crisis Over Ukraine? Will It?

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As concerns grow of a possible nuclear conflict between Russia and the West over Ukraine, there are hopes China could defuse the crisis.

But Russia’s most influential ally may not have the desire or the ability to help, according to analysts.

“If any power has influence over Putin, it is China,” said Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS University of London’s China Institute.

The problem, according to Tsang, is that “foreign policy under [Chinese President] Xi [Jinping] is guided by the China-first — not the world first — principle,” meaning Beijing will be weighing the advantages or disadvantages of getting involved.

China is the only permanent member of the United Nations Security Council that has pledged to not be the first to use nuclear weapons. It is also Russia’s biggest trade partner and arguably the country with the most political influence over Moscow.

But some analysts say Beijing has little incentive to help Washington defuse the crisis because of its anger over the Biden administration’s handling of U.S.-China relations, especially the Taiwan issue. They say U.S. weapons sales to the island that China hopes to reunify with one day, along with recent visits by high-level U.S. officials, are seen as emboldening Taiwan’s pro-independence ruling party.

“That is a critical factor, because Beijing has to think: ‘What am I doing this for, given the U.S. seems relentless in introducing measures every other day to harm Chinese interests, from trade to tech, from the Taiwan issue to the Indo-Pacific,’” said Yuan Jingdong, a professor specializing in Chinese foreign policy at the University of Sydney.

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And even if it wanted to, China may lack the ability to persuade Putin to end the war, some experts told VOA.

Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin in Moscow, Oct. 4, 2022. Nuclear Crisis
Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin in Moscow, Oct. 4, 2022.

“China’s influence in the Ukraine war is very limited,” said Zhu Feng, dean of the School of International Studies at eastern China’s Nanjing University.

Given that the war is going strongly against Putin, urging him to end it now would amount to asking him to accept defeat, Zhu said.

“Can China convince him? Convince him to die a political death? He won’t listen,” said Zhu.

Yuan agreed: “Putin will simply say ‘Thank you, but no thank you.’ He has to think about something more serious, including his very survival.”

China has publicly called for negotiations and a peaceful resolution.

At a meeting with Ukraine’s foreign minister on the sidelines of a U.N. Security Council session in New York last month, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said: “As a responsible major country and a permanent member state of the U.N. Security Council, China has always been committed to dialogue for peace, never standing on the sidelines, nor pouring oil on the flame, still less seeking selfish gains. We always stand on the side of peace and will continue to play a constructive role.”

Although Beijing’s stance on the war has been ambiguous — China has not condemned the Russian invasion and it, alongside Brazil, Gabon and India, recently abstained from a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning the Moscow-backed referendums in eastern Ukraine — Beijing has stopped short of providing Russia with political and military backing.

At a recent meeting between Putin and Xi, Putin revealed China had questions and concerns about the war.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang gives a speech during a dinner reception at the Great Hall of the People on the eve of the National Day holiday in Beijing, Sept. 30, 2022.
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang gives a speech during a dinner reception at the Great Hall of the People on the eve of the National Day holiday in Beijing, Sept. 30, 2022.

Analysts say it’s possible Xi may have suggested ways of de-escalation in private conversations with Putin, and others speculate that China may not believe a nuclear crisis is imminent.

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It’s possible that China “doesn’t think Putin will use nuclear weapons because Putin is not suicidal,” Zhu said. “Putin’s personal political career will suffer a huge impact, and Russia will be downgraded into some kind of failed state.”

Simon Chen, a political science professor at National Taiwan University, said the biggest worry for Beijing is Putin losing political power due to a total defeat in the war.

“It could hurt Putin’s chances of securing another term in office in the presidential election in 2024 and boost the chances of opposition democratic parties in Russia, which are close to the U.S.,” Chen said. “This is not beneficial to China and something China really doesn’t want to see. That’s why Beijing wants both sides to negotiate an end to the war.”

Moscow losing the war could weaken China’s strongest political ally against the U.S., said Yuan.

“Russia’s complete defeat would leave China [alone] against the U.S. and its European and Asian allies and partners and will make it very difficult for China to achieve what it has set out to do,” Yuan said.

Tsang of SOAS argued that it may be in China’s interest to play a much stronger mediating role, even if top Chinese officials might not see that as beneficial.

“If China should successfully put an end to the war, it will emerge as a leading global peace maker and will do China’s global image a ton of good, and the end of the war will also bring in economic benefits,” said Tsang. “The problem is that Xi can’t see it, and no one in the Chinese government dares to tell him.”

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Working to end the Ukraine conflict could also help China achieve long-term geopolitical objectives and help China mend its image in other ways, analysts say.

Alan Chong, associate professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, says the Ukraine conflict has been used by Taiwan to allege that China will soon invade the island. The U.S. government, however, has said there’s no evidence Beijing is preparing for an invasion.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is also feeding into European suspicions that Beijing’s ambitious transcontinental trade route—the Belt and Road Initiative—cloaks imperial intentions and debt traps for countries to fall into, a position that Beijing consistently denies.

China, however, may consider an image enhancement as having little value.

“Improving image will not solve China’s Taiwan problem. It may not even lead to the U.S. taking a less forceful approach toward Taiwan, so one might say that positive incentive is needed to nudge China’s positions,” said Sun Yun, director of the China Program at the Washington-based Stimson Center.

Ultimately, Beijing’s action or inaction on the Ukraine war appears to be based on its relations with Washington.

Seeking Chinese help with Russia while “fanning the flames” over Taiwan “doesn’t work,” said Chinese analyst Zhu, reflecting Beijing’s view. “If you want China to help, why do you treat China the way you do?”

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