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China’s Smart Move Would Be to Push Putin to Peace

Robert B. Zoellick
 

By Robert Zoellick

No matter how Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine ends, China will determine whether the world freezes into a New Cold War. So far, Beijing — and its declared “no limits” partnership with Moscow — has failed to recognize the dangers that the Russian president’s wrecking-ball strategy poses to its own interests.

The best chance to end the bloodshed in Ukraine may lie in China pushing its Russian ally toward the negotiating table. The Western allies, especially the European Union, should try to persuade Beijing to do so.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has been Putin’s wingman in the assault on both Ukraine and the peaceful international system. Yet Beijing should realize that the Russians’ brutal invasion conflicts with its own aims in several significant ways.

First, Xi is hoping for a successful Communist Party Congress this fall, when he expects to win a third (and perpetual) term; surging energy and food prices amid global violence and sanctions won’t set a welcoming stage. Second, Moscow’s redrawing of borders in blood violates China’s traditional respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty — which underpins Beijing’s “one China” policy. Third, Putin’s invasion, instead of dividing the West as he and perhaps China seemed to hope, has unified America’s global alliances.

Finally, there are China’s adamant objections to a revival of what Xi calls “Cold War thinking.”

By doing Putin’s bidding, China is reverting to its subordinate role of the 1950s, something it has spent decades overcoming. Fifty years ago, Mao Zedong recognized China’s overlapping interests with the “imperialist” U.S.; 30 years ago, Deng Xiaoping reminded George H.W. Bush that Russia had eaten away China’s territory, leaving a legacy of geopolitical distrust.

Today, Beijing should want the world’s democracies to differentiate their policies toward authoritarian countries, depending on shared interests and behavior. Amid their frictions, China and the West should be able to find common ground on such issues as the resilience of the international economy, climate change, biological threats and deterring wars.

Russia, a loser in the international system, wants to tear it down. China, as a winner, should want to co-exist, cooperate (and co-opt) where it can.

The EU is best positioned to prod the Chinese leader to reconsider his Ukraine strategy. There is a momentous EU-China summit just weeks away. Beijing will not want the Europeans to view it as the enabler of Russia’s obliteration of European security and of the continent’s worst humanitarian disaster since World War II. China does not want Europe to look at Moscow and Beijing as comrades in a new axis of aggressive autocracies.

The U.S., in concert with Europe, should signal a constructive pathway for China. This is not the time for President Joe Biden’s administration to be discussing new assaults on China’s trade. Washington should have deferred its recent dispatch of former U.S. national security officials, including ex-Joint Chiefs Chairman Michael Mullen, to Taiwan. Instead, it should have sought Beijing’s realignment on the Ukraine crisis.

The EU and the U.S. could encourage Xi to convey to Putin, even if quietly, that a negotiated peace is superior to the interminable costs of war, occupation and insurgency. The destruction and capture of more Ukrainian cities will not make Russia more secure.

Foreign Minister Wang Yi could substantiate China’s offer of “necessary mediation” by proposing to cooperate with a Western partner, perhaps the EU, to forge a cease-fire. Then Ukraine and Russia could explore steps through which an independent, sovereign, neutral Ukraine could gradually re-establish economic ties with both Russia and the West.

Instead of watching Ukraine become a dividing line in a new Cold War, the EU, U.S. and China could help it rebuild as a bridge between East and West.

China will have to decide quickly whether its long-term strategy is to sustain Putin’s destructive chaos or to pursue Xi’s idea of a “new type of great power relations.” Great powers do not smash the peaceful global orders that enabled their rise without incurring unpredictable and unhappy consequences.

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