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HomeAsiaWould China Be an Effective Mediator Between Ukraine and Russia?

Would China Be an Effective Mediator Between Ukraine and Russia?

Image credit: Government of the PRC

By David Curtis Wright

If the idea of Chinese mediation between Russia and Ukraine starts gaining some traction and currency, it should be seriously considered and not blithely dismissed out of hand. There are reasons to be fairly confident that China would serve well in this capacity.       

If Ukraine and Russia are unable to enter into serious peace negotiations themselves, somebody should get Russia and Ukraine talking, whether Israelis, Turks or, yes, Chinese. As potential mediators, the United States and its allies, including Japan, would be unacceptable to Russia, and Russia will also not approve of any country as mediator if it voted against Russia at the UN. Ukraine, for its part, would of course not approve of any of the few countries that actively supported Russia. So that leaves a large body of neutral or abstaining countries as the only pool of viable candidates.     

So the choice must be from among neutral or abstaining countries. In the Sunday 13 March 2022 edition of the New York Times there was an important op-ed piece by Wang Huiyao, the founder and president of the Center for China and Globalization (a think tank in Beijing), who argued persuasively that “unpalatable as some in the West may find the idea, it is time to offer the Russian leader an offramp with China’s help.” This point is well taken, as is his observation that China has a significant economic interest in a quick resolution to the Russian-Ukrainian war.   

I do not for the most part seek to argue or speculate on how likely it would be for China to end up mediating between Kyiv and Moscow. Instead, I give below some potential objections to Chinese mediation (whatever its prospects) and my responses to them.  

Doesn’t China have a record of human rights issues? Yes, it does. There is much room for improvement in the Chinese government’s recognition of, and respect for, human rights. But this does not ipso facto mean that China would be an incompetent mediator. Even governments with problematic human rights records can and do wish for peace when it is aligned with their interests.  

Don’t we have major political and diplomatic disagreements with China? Of course we do. Anybody who follows the news knows that the list of these disagreements is a long and convoluted one. But how does this establish that these political disagreements disqualify China from attempting to mediate in the Ukraine-Russia War?  

Isn’t China deeply unpopular in the international community? First of all, that depends on how “the international community” is defined. If it is conceived as the developed democratic world (Anglophone and Francophone North America, Western Europe and Japan), then yes, but together the developed democratic world consists of only 11.67% of the globe’s population, and China’s relations with the rest of the world are nuanced and varied. Second, even if countries and/or their national leaders are not well-liked, they can still make concrete contributions towards ending war. China is a great power in many ways today, but not yet diplomatically, so it would know well how much it stood to gain or lose diplomatically in its mediation and act accordingly.

Wouldn’t China as mediator simply allow Russia to steamroll over Ukraine? No, China would not do that. China would never simply waltz into the negotiation room and give Russia a blank cheque. China would have way too much at stake diplomatically and geo-strategically to do this. Since its founding in 1949, the People’s Republic of China has never successfully mediated between two major international belligerents. Successfully doing so between Ukraine and Russia would be a feather in China’s cap and propel the country a long way towards emerging as a major global diplomatic power. China’s leaders are too rational and calculating to allow a golden opportunity like this to be botched by maladroit diplomacy.   

Does China not stand to benefit in some way from continuing warfare between Ukraine and Russia? Many commentators in China’s chattering class do in fact take it almost as an a priori article of faith that China will emerge as a beneficiary from this war. But exactly how that benefit will come about and what exactly it will be is not widely or clearly specified by China’s commentariat. What is more, a protracted war between Ukraine and Russia would be inimical to China’s long-term economic interests on the Eurasian landmass, in particular its sprawling and ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, the stated objectives of which are, inter alia, enhancing regional connectivity and working toward a brighter future. Indeed, it might ultimately turn out that China has too much at stake to stand with Russia against the West.   

Haven’t other countries tried mediating? Yes they have, and the results thus far have not been optimal. If in the future conditions look right, why not give China a chance, especially since it more than any other country on earth is in a position to communicate effectively with Russia? China’s government is fully capable of making its voice heard loud and clear (and fairly) in Moscow. And if not even China can talk some sense into Russia, then the world may know that nobody can. It is conceivable that China could emerge as the last best hope for peace on the European continent.   

Haven’t China and Russia become much closer over the past few months? Yes, certainly. This more than any other issue could be a spanner in the cogs as far as prospects for Chinese mediation are concerned, especially given that China presents itself to the world as a concerned and principled onlooker of the war in Ukraine, one not taking sides. Domestically, however, the Chinese Communist Party is busy depicting Russia as a long-suffering victim instead of an aggressor and defends its strong ties with Moscow.     

It seems that if China does end up in a mediating role, it would likely start out negotiations with two acknowledgments: 1) that Russia has genuine and legitimate security concerns that should be addressed, and 2) that Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity ought to be respected. As Yun Sun of the Stimson Center (a Washington D.C. think tank) recently commented, China sides with Russia on security concerns but stands with Ukraine on normative matters of sovereignty and territorial integrity. Balancing these two stances has been a delicate diplomatic trapeze act for China, and it would be especially so in mediation. If China did otherwise than being an honest and objective mediator between the two warring states, all of Beijing’s hortatory boilerplate over the years about respecting territorial integrity, mutual nonaggression towards other countries’ territories and resolving differences through peaceful negotiation (in short, the “Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence”) would amount to transparently cynical hyperbole and claptrap in the eyes of the world. 

Successful Chinese mediation would be a win for several parties: Ukraine, for obvious reasons; Russia, for winning its point about Ukraine never joining NATO; and China, for successfully mediating and perhaps backing away from or clarifying some of its earlier comments that may have been misunderstood by some members of the international community as being supportive of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It would also be a win for the EU, because its current rush to arm itself might be slowed or even halted. (Europe is rearming now at an alarming pace because it is terrified of Putin, and even Sweden and Switzerland are not so neutral anymore.) It would even be a win for the United States, because it would not want to be dragged into yet another foreign war. There is significant war-weariness in the United States, even and especially among right-wing conservatives, who are much less likely to see Russia in a negative light than the moderate and liberal majority of Americans.    

Beijing’s relative international silence over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is growing increasingly deafening, and Beijing is eventually going to have to do something about its (and the world’s) Russia problem. Beijing needs to distance itself from Russian aggression against Ukraine while maintaining its relations with Russia. This will be a very delicate balancing act for China, but China is already working on that act. 

And if things actually do turn out this way – if it really is China that defuses the crisis in Europe, then so be it. Better China’s Silk Road to peace than the potential highway to hell of a European-wide, and possibly even worldwide, conflagration. 

David Curtis Wright (@DavidCurtWright) is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Calgary, affiliated with that university’s Centre for Military, Strategic, and Security Studies, as well as a fellow with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.

Panel 4: Pathways to Manage Non-Proliferation in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:45 PM ET)

The Western powers have failed to effectively manage the increasing threat of proliferation in the Middle East. While the international community is concerned with Iran’s nuclear program, Saudi Arabia has moved forward with developing its own nuclear program, and independent studies show that Israel has longed possessed dozens of nuclear warheads. The former is a member of the treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), while the latter has refused to sign the international agreement. 

On Middle East policy, the Biden campaign had staunchly criticized the Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal and it has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier since assuming office in January 2021. However, serious obstacles remain for responsible actors in expanding non-proliferation efforts toward a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. 

This panel will discuss how Western powers and multilateral institutions, such as the IAEA, can play a more effective role in managing non-proliferation efforts in the Middle East.  

Panelists:

Peggy Mason: Canada’s former Ambassador to the UN for Disarmament

Mark Fitzpatrick: Associate Fellow & Former Executive Director, International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)

Ali Vaez: Iran Project Director, International Crisis Group

Negar Mortazavi: Journalist and Political Analyst, Host of Iran Podcast

David Albright: Founder and President of the Institute for Science and International Security

 

Closing (5:45 PM – 6:00 PM ET)

Panel 3: Trade and Business Diplomacy in the Middle East (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

What is the current economic landscape in the Middle East? While global foreign direct investment is expected to fall drastically in the post-COVID era, the World Bank reported a 5% contraction in the economic output of the Middle East and North African (MENA) countries in 2020 due to the pandemic. While oil prices are expected to rebound with normalization in demand, political instability, regional and geopolitical tensions, domestic corruption, and a volatile regulatory and legal environment all threaten economic recovery in the Middle East. What is the prospect for economic growth and development in the region post-pandemic, and how could MENA nations promote sustainable growth and regional trade moving forward?

At the same time, Middle Eastern diaspora communities have become financially successful and can help promote trade between North America and the region. In this respect, the diaspora can become vital intermediaries for advancing U.S. and Canada’s business interests abroad. Promoting business diplomacy can both benefit the MENA region and be an effective and positive way to advance engagement and achieve foreign policy goals of the North Atlantic.

This panel will investigate the trade and investment opportunities in the Middle East, discuss how facilitating economic engagement with the region can benefit Canadian and American national interests, and explore relevant policy prescriptions.

Panelists:

Hon. Sergio Marchi: Canada’s Former Minister of International Trade

Scott Jolliffe: Chairperson, Canada Arab Business Council

Esfandyar Batmanghelidj: Founder and Publisher of Bourse & Bazaar

Nizar Ghanem: Director of Research and Co-founder at Triangle

Nicki Siamaki: Researcher at Control Risks

Panel 2: Arms Race and Terrorism in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

The Middle East continues to grapple with violence and instability, particularly in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. Fueled by government incompetence and foreign interventions, terrorist insurgencies have imposed severe humanitarian and economic costs on the region. Meanwhile, regional actors have engaged in an unprecedented pursuit of arms accumulation. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have imported billions of both Western and Russian-made weapons and funded militant groups across the region, intending to contain their regional adversaries, particularly Iran. Tehran has also provided sophisticated weaponry to various militia groups across the region to strengthen its geopolitical position against Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Israel. 

On the other hand, with international terrorist networks and intense regional rivalry in the Middle East, it is impractical to discuss peace and security without addressing terrorism and the arms race in the region. This panel will primarily discuss the implications of the ongoing arms race in the region and the role of Western powers and multilateral organizations in facilitating trust-building security arrangements among regional stakeholders to limit the proliferation of arms across the Middle East.

 

Panelists:

Luciano Zaccara: Assistant Professor, Qatar University

Dania Thafer: Executive Director, Gulf International Forum

Kayhan Barzegar: Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the Science and Research Branch of Azad University

Barbara Slavin: Director of Iran Initiative, Atlantic Council

Sanam Shantyaei: Senior Journalist at France24 & host of Middle East Matters

Panel 1: Future of Diplomacy and Engagement in the Middle East (10:30 AM-11:45 AM ET)

The emerging regional order in West Asia will have wide-ranging implications for global security. The Biden administration has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier, an initiative staunchly opposed by Israel, while also taking a harder line on Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen. Meanwhile, key regional actors, including Qatar, Iraq, and Oman, have engaged in backchannel efforts to bring Iran and Saudi Arabia to the negotiating table. From a broader geopolitical perspective, with the need to secure its energy imports, China is also expected to increase its footprint in the region and influence the mentioned challenges. 

In this evolving landscape, Western powers will be compelled to redefine their strategic priorities and adjust their policies with the new realities in the region. In this panel, we will discuss how the West, including the United States and its allies, can utilize multilateral diplomacy with its adversaries to prevent military escalation in the region. Most importantly, the panel will discuss if a multilateral security dialogue in the Persian Gulf region, proposed by some regional actors, can help reduce tensions among regional foes and produce sustainable peace and development for the region. 

Panelists:

Abdullah Baabood: Academic Researcher and Former Director of the Centre for Gulf Studies, Qatar University

Trita Parsi: Executive Vice-President, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft

Ebtesam Al-Ketbi: President, Emirates Policy Centre​

Jon Allen: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Israel

Elizabeth Hagedorn: Washington correspondent for Al-Monitor

Panel 4: Humanitarian Diplomacy: An Underused Foreign Policy Tool in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:30 PM ET)

Military interventions, political and economic instabilities, and civil unrest in the Middle East have led to a global refugee crisis with an increasing wave of refugees and asylum seekers to Europe and Canada. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has, in myriad ways, exacerbated and contributed to the ongoing security threats and destabilization of the region.

While these challenges pose serious risks to Canadian security, Ottawa will also have the opportunity to limit such risks and prevent a spillover effect vis-à-vis effective humanitarian initiatives in the region. In this panel, we will primarily investigate Canada’s Middle East Strategy’s degree of success in providing humanitarian aid to the region. Secondly, the panel will discuss what programs and initiatives Canada can introduce to further build on the renewed strategy. and more specifically, how Canada can utilize its policy instruments to more effectively deal with the increasing influx of refugees from the Middle East. 

 

Panelists:

Erica Di Ruggiero: Director of Centre for Global Health, University of Toronto

Reyhana Patel: Head of Communications & Government Relations, Islamic Relief Canada

Amir Barmaki: Former Head of UN OCHA in Iran

Catherine Gribbin: Senior Legal Advisor for International and Humanitarian Law, Canadian Red Cross

Panel 3: A Review of Canada’s Middle East Engagement and Defense Strategy (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

In 2016, Canada launched an ambitious five-year “Middle East Engagement Strategy” (2016-2021), committing to investing CA$3.5 billion over five years to help establish the necessary conditions for security and stability, alleviate human suffering and enable stabilization programs in the region. In the latest development, during the meeting of the Global Coalition against ISIS, Minister of Foreign Affairs Marc Garneau announced more than $43.6 million in Peace and Stabilization Operations Program funding for 11 projects in Syria and Iraq.

With Canada’s Middle East Engagement Strategy expiring this year, it is time to examine and evaluate this massive investment in the Middle East region in the past five years. More importantly, the panel will discuss a principled and strategic roadmap for the future of Canada’s short-term and long-term engagement in the Middle East.

Panelists:

Ferry de Kerckhove: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Egypt

Dennis Horak: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia

Chris Kilford: Former Canadian Defence Attaché in Turkey, member of the national board of the Canadian International Council (CIC)

David Dewitt: University Professor Emeritus, York University

Panel 2: The Great Power Competition in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

While the United States continues to pull back from certain regional conflicts, reflected by the Biden administration’s decision to halt American backing for Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen and the expected withdrawal from Afghanistan, US troops continue to be stationed across the region. Meanwhile, Russia and China have significantly maintained and even expanded their regional activities. On one hand, the Kremlin has maintained its military presence in Syria, and on the other hand, China has signed an unprecedented 25-year strategic agreement with Iran.

As the global power structure continues to shift, it is essential to analyze the future of the US regional presence under the Biden administration, explore the emerging global rivalry with Russia and China, and at last, investigate the implications of such competition for peace and security in the Middle East.

Panelists:

Dmitri Trenin: Director of Carnegie Moscow Center

Joost R. Hiltermann: Director of MENA Programme, International Crisis Group

Roxane Farmanfarmaian: Affiliated Lecturer in International Relations of the Middle East and North Africa, University of Cambridge

Andrew A. Michta: Dean of the College of International and Security Studies at Marshall Center

Kelley Vlahos: Senior Advisor, Quincy Institute

Panel 1: A New Middle East Security Architecture in the Making (10:30 AM -11:45 AM ET)

The security architecture of the Middle East has undergone rapid transformations in an exceptionally short period. Notable developments include the United States gradual withdrawal from the region, rapprochement between Israel and some GCC states through the Abraham Accords and the rise of Chinese and Russian regional engagement.

With these new trends in the Middle East, it is timely to investigate the security implications of the Biden administration’s Middle East policy. In this respect, we will discuss the Biden team’s new approach vis-à-vis Iran, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. The panel will also discuss the role of other major powers, including China and Russia in shaping this new security environment in the region, and how the Biden administration will respond to these powers’ increasing regional presence.

 

Panelists:

Sanam Vakil: Deputy Director of MENA Programme at Chatham House

Denise Natali: Acting Director, Institute for National Strategic Studies & Director of the Center for Strategic Research, National Defense University

Hassan Ahmadian: Professor of the Middle East and North Africa Studies, University of Tehran

Abdulaziz Sagar: Chairman, Gulf Research Center

Andrew Parasiliti: President, Al-Monitor