China’s decision to join international talks in Saudi Arabia this weekend seeking to end Russia’s war in Ukraine signals possible shifts in Beijing’s approach but not a U-turn in its support for Moscow, analysts say.
While Beijing declined to join earlier talks in NATO member Denmark, analysts said it feels far more comfortable joining the effort in Saudi Arabia, even if Russia is not present and Ukraine is pushing its own plan.
China has refused to condemn Moscow for the invasion it launched in February 2022 but has offered its own peace plan, Beijing appears to be confronting some hard realities as the conflict drags on.
“Beijing has been gearing more toward peace efforts but it also knows that a peace initiative led by Beijing is unlikely to be embraced by the West at this point,” said Yun Sun, a director of the China programme at the Stimson Centre think tank in Washington.
“Beijing will not want to be absent from other credible peace initiatives that are led by non-Western countries.”
Peace envoy Li Hui was joining senior officials from some 40 countries in Jeddah, China’s foreign ministry said on Friday, for talks that Ukrainian and Western envoys hope will forge key principles for an eventual settlement to end the war.
Beijing’s latest move on the global diplomatic stage comes as President Xi Jinping grapples with a host of internal issues, including the unexplained replacement last month of Qin Gang as foreign minister, the abrupt replacement of the top brass at the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force and deepening woes for the world’s second-biggest economy.
China did not attend the talks in Copenhagen in late June, despite being invited and having proposed its own 12-point plan for peace.
Beijing has maintained close economic and diplomatic ties with Russia since President Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion, and has accused US-led Western forces of seeking to prolong the conflict by providing arms and support to Ukraine.
The foreign ministry did not respond to requests for comment over the weekend.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba called Li’s involvement a “considerable breakthrough”, according to Ukrainian media. China has been courting oil giant Saudi Arabia, which is part of the non-aligned Global South, a grouping China is keen to lead.
Russia is eventually “bound to be defeated”, said Shanghai-based international relations scholar Shen Dingli, so China must look for international cooperation while not accelerating any collapse in Russia.
“We can put forward different opinions, and we can also put forward some suggestions to jointly promote the early and proper political settlement of problems we see,” Shen said.
While China’s move was good for its image, Singapore-based analyst Li Mingjiang said Beijing would be looking to fine-tune its positions.
It wants to better understand others’ positions and “is probably also trying to explore a space of China’s own adaptability, China’s own manoeuvrability”, said Li, an associate professor of international relations at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
That evolution was occurring as some analysts detect mounting Chinese angst at the protracted nature of the war and Russia’s recent bombing of Ukrainian grain ports, upsetting previously protected shipments from the global grain powerhouse.
Geng Shuang, China’s deputy permanent representative to the United Nations, told the Security Council on July 26 that his delegation was deeply concerned there seemed to be no end to the war.
“Now the situation is increasingly complex for Beijing to manoeuvre, as the escalation of the war directly impacts China’s economic and political interests,” said Moritz Rudolf, a scholar at Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Centre.
- A Reuters report