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‘It would be the best way out for China if this war ends soon’

For three and a half years, Steven Langendonk has been investigating the role of Chinese diplomats in relation to international organizations such as the European Union or the United Nations. Now that more and more questions are being raised in the Western world about China’s position towards Russia in the war with Ukraine, we are all too easily mistaken about China’s attitude, according to Langendonk.

What misunderstandings are you talking about?

“For example, about the misconception to see an attack in every sneer by Chinese diplomats or politicians towards the West. And the misconception that what those diplomats say in organizations like the UN Security Council is really representative of the country’s position, or the direction it wants to take. It often isn’t. The statements of those diplomats are rather for the stage, it is what they want to communicate to the world and to their own people. They prefer to use other, direct channels for communication to Russia or the US.

“The fact that instructions are given in Beijing not to publish negative news about the Russian invasion is also not a clear statement of support for Russia. It may seem that China is currently on the Russian side, but that seems too short-sighted to me.”

So China isn’t thrilled with this war?

“I do not think so. China will benefit most from a more or less stable world in which it can increase its economic power. The heavy sanctions against Russia and the sharply increased prices for oil and gas also have an impact on that country. In addition, it seems that grain prices will rise and could therefore also cause social unrest in regions such as the Middle East. Chinese President Xi Jinping would rather not see that happen.

“In addition, China has forged good ties with Russia since the turn of the century. For years, Xi Jinping has proclaimed that ties with Russia are important for global stability. That perception is, of course, gone by Putin’s aggression against Ukraine. Xi is also apprehensive about this. He wants to avoid being accused of completely mistaking Russia. Hence, his diplomats have so far framed this conflict as one with a long history that would break out sooner or later anyway.

“In other words, I don’t think China can condemn Russia harshly. Because that would immediately raise questions among its own population about the judgment ability of the leaders. And if Xi Jinping were to antagonize Russia by imposing sanctions himself or by harshly condemning the invasion, he would also lose an important partner. Then China would also lose its influence on Russia, and it would like to keep that influence.”

At the same time, China also does a lot of trade with Ukraine. That strikes me as a difficult split.

“That’s why I don’t immediately think that China was aware in advance that Russia would really invade Ukraine. In the first days after the invasion, you saw that Chinese diplomats in the Security Council kept a low profile. In a manner of speaking, they pulled out a file tray with very general, meaningless statements. To me, that mainly indicated that the Chinese leadership had not yet made a choice about its position in this conflict.

“The Chinese rhetoric is simply difficult for many spectators to interpret. Take, for example, the press conference of Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on Monday. Most observers paid special attention to his attacks on the United States. Wang Yi accused the West, like Russia, of too far-reaching ‘block formation’ in NATO, among others. According to China, this is a destabilizing factor that does little good for the world order.

“At the same time, Wang Yi pointed to the long-standing friendship with Ukraine. Many see that as contradictory, but I don’t see it that way. Xi Jinping is simply out to maintain the best possible ties with each country. As soon as Ukraine got the impression that China is openly sided with Russia, there would immediately be talk of a Russian-Chinese axis. Then the West would also take over that framing and relations with China would deteriorate.”

Can China then act as a mediator in this conflict, as is hoped?

“For China, it would indeed be the best way out if this war ends soon. What counts for the leaders is their country’s reputation in the world. If, say, the government of Tanzania sees them as a reliable partner, this opens the door for more cooperation. China is terrified of being like a bad apple portrayed, and that view has just been pushed more and more forward by the West in recent years.

“If China were to succeed in mediating in this conflict, it would emerge as the morally sound actor in this story. Unlike the bloodthirsty NATO and the EU, which immediately jumped on it with heavy sanctions, China can then boast that it has acted responsibly. The future will show whether that image of China as a responsible actor is tenable.”

‘It would be the best way out for China if this war ends soon’
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