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Can China Be The Bridge Between Russia And The West?

Article illustrative image Partner logo "Telephone diplomacy" between Putin, Xi Jinping, Barack Obama and Angela Merkel

BEIJING — China is far from being a central character in the Ukrainian crisis drama. Still, it has the potential to become an important mediator on the global stage between Russia and the West.

China’s influence in the past was limited to its vote in the UN Security Council, but since the Crimea crisis emerged, all parties are vying for China’s support. President Xi Jinping has carried out intensive “telephone diplomacy” with Russian President Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and U.S. President Barack Obama.

China abstained from the March 15 UN Security Council resolution to ignore the results of Crimea’s referendum to join the Russian Federation. The various parties interpreted this decision in different ways, generally favorable to themselves.

People still remember well the shadows of the Cold War, and defenders of peace are obviously unwilling to return to that state of affairs. So far, the Chinese government hasn’t chosen sides. In his calls with the three leaders, President Xi has urged all parties to use political and diplomatic means to ease the situation.

If China can move past the “non-intervention” policy it has been insisting on for years and carry out more active mediation between Russia and the West, it could potentially perform an important service to world peace and stability.

China has undergone “revolutionary diplomacy,” “construction diplomacy” and is now entering “rejuvenation diplomacy.” The impact of its words and deeds is no longer limited to domestic matters.

With China’s rapid economic development, the reach of its national interest and its global responsibility is growing. On certain issues that China used to avoid, it’s now obliged to express a clear position.

The sanctions the West has implemented so far against Russia are moderate, in part because the EU is hindered by its energy dependence on Russia but also because the United States and the EU are intentionally leaving room for diplomatic conciliation. So far they are still trying to guide Russia towards a way out — to remove the armed forces sent into Ukraine and to conduct direct dialogue with the new Kiev government.

Meanwhile, Russia hasn’t totally closed its diplomatic door either. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry continue to communicate. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has urged Russia to agree to international observers entering Ukraine while Putin hasn’t opposed this in principle.

Still hope

All of this shows that the two sides haven’t yet reached a fatal incompatibility. At this point, a weighty and dedicated mediator could play an extraordinary role. No country is more suited than China to playing this role. China could consider sending a special envoy to Moscow, Kiev or even Brussels and Washington to find a solution acceptable to all parties.

In terms of timing, the referendum has actually increased the chances for mediation. Until the vote, a Crimean referendum was Russia’s bottom line, whereas not allowing it to occur was the bottom line of the West. There was almost no room for compromise.

Even though Kiev and the West are very reluctant to accept the agreement between Crimea and Russia, it’s done. It is now impossible to “recover” Crimea, considering that most people in the region are pro-Russian.

To prevent the situation from escalating further, Kiev and the West would probably be willing to sacrifice Crimea to secure other peace commitments from Moscow. Besides, Russia has always said that its special attachment to Crimea is associated with historical events and that it will not invade other eastern regions of Ukraine. 

It would be a novel challenge for China to play the role of mediator between Russia and the West. If it does, it would represent a major turning point and a divergence from the country’s low-profile global strategy. China shouldn’t restrict itself to quelling disputes between Russia and the West, but should actively participate in building a stable peace buffer zone in Eastern Europe. 

In its diplomatic efforts, China must be fair and objective in the interest of safeguarding international justice. 

And at this critical moment, China should be cautious of those clamoring to side with Russia. A great rising nation must possess moral appeal and affinity. A country that takes into account only its own interests without questioning what’s right or wrong can never win international respect.

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