China faces pressure to rein in Russia, but may have limited sway.
China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, will be asked to apply more pressure on Russia to end its war in Ukraine when he meets with President Emmanuel Macron of France this week. The evidence suggests that he is likely to disappoint.
Mr. Xi has shown little desire — or ability — to restrain President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, whom he struck a “no limits” partnership with more than a year ago in a strategic embrace aimed at realigning the world order away from the United States and Europe.
Mr. Putin cast doubt on China’s influence when he said last month that he would position tactical nuclear weapons in neighboring Belarus days after issuing a statement with Mr. Xi pledging not to deploy such weapons abroad.
China has staked out a difficult position on Russia’s war in Ukraine. Beijing has claimed neutrality, even suggesting that it could serve as a peace mediator, while deepening relations with Moscow at every turn and throwing it an economic lifeline by increasing trade. A long-rumored call between Mr. Xi and President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, which would have bolstered China’s claim of neutrality, has yet to take place.
A visit by Mr. Xi to Moscow last month, which officials billed as a peace mission, provided Mr. Putin greater legitimacy at home. Mr. Xi endorsed Mr. Putin’s re-election as president and showed that the Kremlin was not completely isolated by having China in its corner. A joint statement issued after the meeting by the two leaders mentioned Ukraine only toward the end and offered no specifics about how to stop the fighting.
The statement echoed a 12-point proposal for a peace settlement in Ukraine that China released in February that refrained from using the words war or invasion to describe Russia’s military aggression, and paid more attention to Beijing’s objection to Western security alliances like NATO.
“The 12-point plan on Ukraine is a big smoke screen to deflect criticism against China for its pro-Russia neutrality,” said Tuvia Gering, a researcher at the Guilford Glazer Center at the Institute for National Security Studies in Israel who has written extensively about Chinese foreign policy.
Beijing’s support for Moscow has undermined its bid to mend ties with Europe, a region it needs to help revive its economy. It also hopes to prevent European countries from aligning with the United States and its calls for more trade restrictions targeting China on security grounds.
To that end, China’s strategy has focused on exploiting splits within the European Union over ties to China and appealing to the region’s desired independence from Washington, known as strategic autonomy.
“Beijing does want to foster Europe’s strategic autonomy from the U.S., but it cannot deliver Russia,” said Yun Sun, director of the China program at the Stimson Center, a Washington-based research institute.
“I suspect Xi will say things to pacify Macron, but nothing close to pressuring Russia to bring peace,” she added. “Some Chinese strategists have said not picking a side is the best strategy for China, because it gives China the advantage. In this case, I don’t think China in fact has the ability to fundamentally change Russia’s position toward the war.”