During the first year following the Feb. 24, 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, China maintained a neutral stance, as Beijing attempted to undercut democracy without provoking Western economic sanctions. However, China’s true stance in the war was put on full display in March of this year when President Xi Jinping visited President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, and the two leaders signed an agreement that promised a stronger relationship and condemned American hegemony. Worryingly, Beijing has allegedly considered further expanding its trading repertoire with Moscow by selling weapons — including artillery shells and attack drones — to Russia. Arming Russia would officially end any pretense of Chinese neutrality and undoubtedly provoke a series of Western sanctions against Beijing. Instead, China should work to broker a realistic peace treaty with Russia and Ukraine, asserting itself as the world’s foremost diplomatic leader at a time when geopolitical tides are turning in favor of the developing world and the Global South.
Given Russia’s military ineptitude and the severe consequences that would accompany such a decision, Beijing should resist the urge to send arms to Moscow. Arming Russia would be a rash mistake that would compromise China’s position in regions where it seeks to grow its influence. China works to consolidate soft power in countries in the Global South by presenting itself as a respecter of national autonomy, but arming Russia discredits the claim that Beijing pursues a foreign policy based on respect for territorial integrity. Moreover, Putin has proven himself to be impulsive and irrational over the course of the war, unraveling his previous reputation as a military strategist as well as Russia’s reputation as a global superpower. To put it simply, China would sacrifice a great deal of political clout in selling arms to Russia, and Moscow has not proven itself worthy of such a high-stakes investment.
Instead of investing its political and economic capital into risky war efforts, China would benefit most from brokering a peace agreement to end the war. Beijing’s original 12-point plan calls for an end to unilateral sanctions but does not call for the restoration of territory to Ukraine, making it a non-starter for Kyiv. In contrast, a realistic peace plan could involve the restoration of Ukrainian territory in exchange for favorable trade agreements for Moscow and multilateral negotiations to provide guarantees for future Ukrainian sovereignty in exchange for Ukraine promising never to join NATO. Given that Russian propaganda blamed the onset of the war on NATO expansion, this agreement would give Putin a political ‘out’ and allow him to claim the war ended on his terms.
China would reap political rewards in the Global South by successfully negotiating a cease-fire between Russia and Ukraine. Beijing recently announced a Global Security Initiative, which detailed an ambition to assert itself in global peace talks, especially in the Global South. Alliances in the Global South can benefit China through trade, increased influence in multilateral institutions and potential military bases in the event of future Chinese expansion. China recently made waves with its involvement in the peace agreement between longtime rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia, but other efforts to resolve conflicts in developing nations such as Afghanistan and Myanmar have been unsuccessful. However, were China to successfully broker a peace deal to end the Russia-Ukraine war, it would send a message to developing countries that China is a more viable partner for diplomacy than the American-led Western alliance. If Xi is a truly rational actor, he should back up his statement that Beijing is a benevolent broker of peace.