War in Europe
The Dangerous Illusion about China's Possible Mediating Role

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin during their meeting in Beijing in February 2022.

© picture alliance / ASSOCIATED PRESS | Alexei Druzhinin

As the Ukraine war continues to escalate, China is trying to establish itself as a supposedly neutral mediator between Moscow and Kiev. But the hope that President Xi might even have a mitigating effect on Putin has not yet been realized. Rather, a closing of ranks between Russia and China is identified. At first, only in terms of narratives - but there are increasing signs that it goes beyond that.

"China always stands for respecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries and adhering to the goals and principles of the UN Charter [...], and is committed to promoting peace talks." These were the words of State Councilor for Foreign Affairs Yang Jiechi in a statement circulated by the Chinese state news agency Xinhua a few days after the talks in Rome. There, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi and U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan had discussed the situation in Ukraine. In addition to the indisputable, expected phrases, Yang added that "it is important to clarify the historical context of the Ukraine issue, get to the root of the problem, and address the legitimate concerns of all parties."

This statement is striking, because it resembles the Russian justification for the invasion of Ukraine. According to this, there is no war going on at all, and besides, historically speaking, there is no difference between Russians and Ukrainians anyway. The statements from Beijing go hand in hand with this argumentation - it is hard to imagine that China could then still mediate between the two parties as a neutral broker. At the same time, Beijing is trying to give itself the appearance of a certain neutrality to the outside world, for example by discussing China's possible role as a mediator in the conflict in state media. These articles are clearly aimed at an international audience: They are often in English, and the authors are frequently members of the "Chinese United Front," an organization that is supposed to spread the goals and narratives of the Chinese Communist Party abroad.

A look at the social networks: Until now, Moscow was still allowed to place ads on Facebook that contained pro-Russian anti-European and anti-NATO propaganda. Now, state media from Russia are no longer allowed to place ads on the meta group - but ads with the same content are distributed by Chinese state media. At least 21 such ads were placed last month. The target group of the posts are mainly people in Russia's neighboring countries. The propaganda schooling also reaches the more traditional media of both countries: the state media "Voice of Russia" and the Chinese "People's Daily" have had an agreement on the exchange and mutual use of media content since 2014, "Russia Today" and "Xinhua" since 2015.

Moreover, not only the Russian leadership but also the Chinese leadership avoids the word war in connection with the Ukraine conflict as much as possible. The Russian invasion is not condemned as such in China; rather, according to the Russian linguistic regime, it is referred to as an "operation." Posts that are critical of Russia and pro-Ukraine are immediately deleted from Chinese social media and the corresponding users are blocked.

Another argument against China's supposed neutrality in the Ukraine war is that, according to U.S. intelligence sources, Russia has asked the People's Republic to supply weapons - and, according to media reports, China has agreed.

The exact motives for Beijing's support for Putin are probably known only to President Xi Jinping. But a number of motives are conceivable: Both leaders use the narrative of a hostile, imperialistic West. Xi could also see the Russian invasion of Ukraine as a test balloon for his plans for a forced unification of the island of Taiwan with the People's Republic. Or perhaps China simply wants to prop up Putin to avoid a trouble spot in its immediate neighborhood. 

What is clear is that Xi and Putin released a joint statement after their February meeting, during which Putin arrived as the guest of honor at the Beijing Winter Olympics, affirming "[...] that the new interstate relations between Russia and China are superior to the political and military alliances of the Cold War era. The friendship between the two states has no borders, there are no "forbidden" areas of cooperation [...]." How far this "borderless friendship" actually goes, and what the "cooperation without prohibited areas" all entails, the next weeks will show. The most recent developments suggest bad things to come.

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Helena von Hardenberg, Presse und Digitale Kommunikation
Helena von Hardenberg
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Phone: +49 30 288778-565