China’s Chess Game in Ukraine: Is the West Ready?

Relationship between the China and the Ukraine. Two flags of countries on heaven with sunset. 3D rendered illustration.

EXPERT PERSPECTIVE — On the heels of Xi Jinping’s visit to Russia, the world seems to be waking up to the implications of China’s possible emergence as the peacemaker to end Russia’s war in Ukraine. As unlikely as this may seem, bear in mind that this war has confounded experts and pundits, shredding widely-held assumptions about both Ukraine and Russia.

Rajan Menon is the Anne and Bernard Spitzer Professor of International Relations at the City College of New York/City University of New York, Senior Research Fellow at the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace at Columbia University, and Director of the Grand Strategy Program at Defense Priorities. His books include Conflict in Ukraine: The Unwinding of the Post-Cold War Order.

Karol Kalush (a pseudonym) is a former US intelligence officer with direct experience in Ukraine and its surrounding region.

The Chinese economic presence in Ukraine is already substantial through trade and major construction projects, and the PRC, while closely aligned with Moscow, has made sure to keep the channels of political communication with Kyiv open. China has reasons to mediate a settlement in Ukraine and to participate in its post-war economic reconstruction.

Ukrainian policymakers must continue to chart their relationship with the PRC, during and after the war.  If the US wishes to counter China’s current and future influence in Ukraine, it ought to be remain active in assisting Ukraine’s economic revival and strengthening Ukrainians’ security. But the West should keep in mind that Ukraine’s leaders have amply-demonstrated strategic savvy, and a keen grasp of their country’s interests.

If there’s one thing that the war in Ukraine has taught us, or certainly should have, it’s the virtue of humility. Just about everything that’s happened since Russia’s February 24, 2022, invasion has confounded people who thought they knew a thing or two about these two countries—and about war more generally.

Three years ago, the proposition that Vladimir Putin would mount a full-on attack aimed at “regime change” against a country larger than France might have seemed outlandish, even though Russia’s war against Ukraine actually began in 2014, which means that it has been underway for nearly 3,300 days, not 365-plus.  And once Russia’s invasion started, most everyone, including the CIA’s analysts, thought Ukraine’s resistance would crumble within days, so overwhelming was the magnitude of Russian superiority, which may explain the conclusion of two RAND Corporation experts a month before the invasion that Western weaponry would be of scant help to Ukraine. Vladimir Putin also anticipated quick success because he overestimated Russia’s military prowess and underestimated the morale of the Ukrainian people.  Put also underestimated Volodymyr Zelensky’s capacity to emerge as a war-time president who would rally them to defend their homeland. 

How did Moscow and Washington both get it so wrong? This question needs to be addressed as part of a larger point that what now seems unlikely, could well happen in the relationship between China and Ukraine.

False Forecasts

Contrary to expectations in both Washington and Moscow, a year after the invasion, Russia remains mired in Ukraine. Despite Putin’s September mobilization of 300,000 additional people for the fight, the widely-anticipated Russian offensive hasn’t amounted to much: the 600-mile front line has barely moved since November.  Moreover, Russia has suffered heavy losses in soldiers and equipment—to the point that it’s now sending to the front T-54 tanks, machines that date back to the latter half of the 1940s and is even running short of the artillery shells that it has used to devastating effect. Then there’s the utter incompetence of the Russian military—something that took experts aback after the much-vaunted military modernization drive Putin launched in 2008.

Some will claim that the pre-war predictions went awry because there were too many variables to consider, for instance: Would Zelensky ask for a ride to a safe haven abroad—as other Ukrainians leaders from bygone years had done—or seek ammunition to stay home and lead the fight? Would Ukrainians who regard Russian as their primary language rise up to defend the homeland or welcome the “liberators”? Would Europe and the US confine themselves to condemning Russia or would they arm Ukraine for “as long as it takes”?  

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But as long-time observers of Ukraine, we have a different explanation for why the commonplace expectations were wide of the mark. Many Western experts, and Russian officials, got things wrong for a variety of other reasons. These include a lack of deep, first-person, on-the-ground familiarity across the country with different segments of Ukrainian society; the assumption that Ukraine’s past would be a sure-fire guide to its future despite the unprecedented threat it faced to its very existence in February 2022; the acceptance of common stereotypes, including the old chestnut that Ukrainians who spoke Russian at home would support a Russian invasion; the belief that Russia’s agents in Ukraine would be successful in overthrowing the Kyiv government; and the failure to understand the extent to which corruption, outdated equipment and tactics, poor training, and lousy logistics had degraded the Russian army.

The bottom line: based on what we have all witnessed since Russia’s war on Ukraine, we ought to re-examine prevailing beliefs and come to terms with the fact that some of our basic assessments and expectations proved dead wrong—and that could be true of the standard views of China’s role in Ukraine.  And as a result, we should also consider the implications for Western interests if China were to play a larger role in Ukraine.

The China-Russia “No-Limits” Friendship

That’s the spirit in which we venture a scenario, which at first blush will strike readers as, at the very least, implausible: The possibility that China could broker a peace settlement in Ukraine, and one that Kyiv could find acceptable, and also play a major role in Ukraine’s post-war economy. Admittedly, this seems like a remote prospect now. After all, the “strategic partnership” between Beijing and Moscow that began in the 1990s—in other words, pre-Putin—has now become a “no limits” partnership, as Xi Jinping and Putin called it in a statement they signed a little more than a fortnight before the latter unleashed his army on Ukraine.

But consider that since the war began, China’s energy imports from Russia have skyrocketed from $41 billion at the end of 2021 to $68 billion at the end of 2022. Total trade has soared from $141 billion to $190 billion, and Russia has looked to China for critical imports it can no longer get from the West. China has not only refused to apply sanctions against Russia, it has refused to support UN General Assembly resolutions condemning the war.

So, why on earth would China  mediate a deal to end the war that’s acceptable to Kyiv, which, at minimum, would require Putin to withdraw his army to the pre-war lines? And why would Beijing strengthen its economic ties with Ukraine?

Answer: unadulterated self-interest.

Xi and Putin may use superlatives to describe their friendship—Xi calls the Russian leader his “best friend”—but countries aren’t completely, or even principally, guided by emotion. Their calculations are generally rooted in self-interest, and China is no exception. As the détente Beijing recently brokered between Iran and Saudi Arabia to much acclaim shows, China under Xi seeks to rival, and perhaps supplant, the United States’ global influence and eventually its standing as the world’s most powerful and influential country.  Beijing backs Russia now not for sentimental reasons, or because of Xi’s fondness for Putin, but because China’s leaders doesn’t want the United States to be able to focus even more resources and attention on East Asia in general, and China in particular.

Don’t miss The Cipher Brief reporting from Kyiv: As Ukraine announces a planned counteroffensive in the spring, the head of the country’s Main Intelligence Directorate, Major General Kyrylo Budanov, is predicting that the coming battles will be ‘decisive’. 

Beijing as Mediator?

This bring us to Xi as a potential peacemaker in Ukraine. If Xi could serve as the prime mover for a political settlement that ends the war, Europe, now securely tied to the United States, would sit up and take notice, and China’s standing on the continent, indeed the world, would be boosted big time. A diplomatic settlement in Ukraine enabled by Chinese mediation would be interpreted by Europeans, and people worldwide, as confirmation that Pax-Americana is being slowly supplanted by Pax-Sinica. It would also mean that Chinese influence in Ukraine—a country of 41million with a land area larger than any country in Western or East-Central Europe and that is certain to eventually play a big role on the continent—would increase instead of being marginalized by the United States. And what a coup it would be for Beijing if it played kingmaker in Ukraine after the West devoted tens of billions of dollars to support Ukrainians’ resistance to Russia.

But how could Beijing achieve so audacious an objective?

For starters, no matter the rhetoric of an equal partnership, it’s pretty clear, certainly to China, that Moscow plays second fiddle to Beijing. Gone are the years when China looked to the Kremlin for direction and leadership. China’s economy has become the world’s second largest; Russia’s ranks 27th.  Russia’s is largely a hydrocarbon economy; China’s has become a force to be reckoned with in everything from green energy and high-speed rail to AI. China used to be wholly reliant on Russian weapons; increasingly, it’s building top-flight armaments of its own. Both China and Russia have demographic problems, but Russia’s population problem looks far worse in the short term. Yes, Russia is selling even more energy to China since the war began ($88 billion in the 12 months after the war began compared to $57 billion during the same amount of time before it started), but given Western sanctions where else could Moscow look for a single big market now that Europe no longer plays that part?

In short, China has significant leverage over Russia, but the reverse isn’t necessarily true. Beijing could offer Russia all manner of benefits if it agrees to exit a war that’s manifestly failing. And without China’s backing, Russia would be much more vulnerable to Western pressure.

Xi would achieve another diplomatic coup by brokering peace in Ukraine, but why would Kyiv want him to play that role?  For openers, China could muster the influence needed to nudge Russia toward a settlement that (potentially) the Ukrainians could accept as honorable and, in their eyes, worth the huge sacrifices they have made to defend their homeland.  If the war drags on to 2024 (or beyond that) and Western support wanes, China’s bargaining chips could become more important for settle a conflict. The United States, for all its might, influence, and wealth, may prove unable to compel Russia to get out of Ukraine, short of direct military intervention, a step that no American president would take and that Biden ruled out from the outset. Washington may be able to ensure that Ukraine’s army has the weapons it needs to evict Russia, but that may take years more of warfare, which will burden Ukraine in numerous ways and possibly even lead to an economic collapse if international economic support is reduced.  

China in Ukraine’s Post-War Economy

Ukraine needs a lot of money to finance its reconstruction. No one knows just how much, but one estimate, that of Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal, is $750 billion, and that was in October 2022. The World Bank’s latest estimate is $411 billion. The Kyiv School of Economics (KSE) pegs the cost at over $140 billion.  But even if the price tag turns out to be only half of the KSE’s estimate, we’re still talking serious money. The United States and Europe will certainly help out, but neither wants to be stuck with the entire bill. Moreover, if Western economies face huge headwinds, which is possible given that growth is already slowing and inflation accelerating, Ukraine fatigue could set in and support for Kyiv could attenuate.

Enter China with its $3 trillion in foreign exchange. Ukraine will need all the help it can get to rebuild its economy, so massive has been the destruction Russia has wrought; and Beijing has the big bucks that could help. Plus, with the years of experience it has gained by now on account of construction projects worldwide (together with other investment they total $2.27 trillion—and that’s just since 2005), many related to its global Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China also has the expertise. (BRI spending alone could surpass $1 trillion by 2027.) In addition, Chinese trade with Ukraine has been growing substantially, and by 2021 China had become Ukraine’s top trade partner, with the total value twice that of Ukraine’s trade with Russia, which was in third place behind Poland. 

Between 2012 and 2021, China’s exports to Ukraine increased threefold and its imports by the same magnitude. A recent report by the Council on Foreign Relations notes that “by 2019, China replaced Russia as Ukraine’s largest trade partner, becoming the top importer of Ukrainian barley, while Ukraine overtook the United States as China’s largest corn supplier. Ukraine is also a major arms supplier for China, second only to Russia, and China is the largest buyer of Ukrainian arms.” Chinese investments in Ukraine encompass a range of projects, from the modernization Mikolaiv and Yuzhny ports to the building of a new subway line in Kyiv, which will extend from the Dnipro river’s east back to the center of Kyiv and is expected to cost $2 billion, based on the 2018 preliminary feasibility study.  

The economic ties between the two countries already has a substantial foundation and hence the potential for further growth, especially as Ukraine’s economic relationship with Russia diminishes. By helping to rebuild post-war Ukraine, which it is already doing during the war, China could establish a much bigger and enduring economic presence in a country that is rich in resources, is agricultural powerhouse, and has a vast pool of consumers, whose purchasing power will increase as reconstruction advances. Moreover, Ukraine’s location makes it a conduit for Chinese goods bound for Europe. As Olga Drobotyuk of the Institute of Contemporary China Studies—based in Kyiv—notes, both Beijing and Kyiv are clearly aware of this. They have already cooperated on building a freight rail connection linking China and Ukraine and, during the last six years alone, signed agreements totaling nearly $3 billion covering an array of BRI projects. Describing the China to Europe rail line, the Chinese news agency Xinhua noted that during the first six months of 2021 “trains carried 720,000 twenty-foot equivalent containers.”

Then there’s the strategic dimension. As China acquires a growing stake in Ukraine, Russia will have to think twice—maybe three times—before invading again, which works to Kyiv’s advantage. As for China, Ukraine’s geography could give it a next-door-neighbor position in Europe, furthering its aim to compete with the US for influence on the continent by establishing a stronger foothold on the EU’s doorstep. Beijing no doubt realizes that the Silk Road rail line from China to Europe via Russia and Ukraine cannot continue to advance so long as Russia continues its war in Ukraine.

China’s 12-point peace plan, unveiled on February 24, omits points central to Ukraine’s conception of the terms on which the war must end. Yet, tellingly, the very first point invokes the UN Charter and international law to emphasize the “sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of all countries,” a formulation that Putin could have hardly wanted given that Russia’s invasion violates the Charter and international law. And the final point stresses the importance of “post-conflict reconstruction,” adding that “China stands ready to provide assistance and play a constructive role in this endeavor.” Though Xi’s declared intention to speak with President Volodymyr Zelensky following his March visit to Russia remains unfulfilled, it shows that China has at least entertained the thought of serving as mediator. And Zelensky, as witness his March 29 decision, hard on the heels of Xi’s trip to Russia, to invite the Chinese president to Ukraine, is likely inclined to see what China has to offer on the diplomatic front and perhaps to shift its thinking in ways more favorable to Kyiv.

As the war drags on, and Beijing realizes that Russia cannot win (at least by Moscow definition of a “win”), and that backing a failing war does not serve China’s interests, the Chinese position may change and become more evenhanded.  We cannot be certain this will happen, but the possibility should not be excluded given what China stands to gain, diplomatically and economically, by attempting to broker a settlement that ends the war—and perhaps succeeding.

What would China sacrifice to gain such multifaceted influence and prestige? Well, nothing really, because it’s not as if Russia can turn elsewhere, having burned many of its bridges to the West and won’t be able to rebuild them rapidly even after a peace settlement. Russia, too, seeks to shape Ukraine’s trajectory, but its invasion of Ukraine dashed that ambition, but China’s resources for influence-building in Ukraine are far greater. Beijing can preserve its influence in Russia, acquire a larger strategic and economic presence in Ukraine and the rest of Europe, and strengthen its standing as a global power. Its choice is not limited to backing Russia or abandoning it.

Be Open to the Unexpected

The war in Ukraine had produced many surprises, and that should serve as a warning against making confident forecasts or excluding potential moves on the chessboard. So, to be clear: We are not predicting that the scenario we sketch here is certain to materialize. One can think of several reasons why it wouldn’t. Nor do we claim that there aren’t possible downsides to the outcome we’re asking readers to consider, though we do believe that Kyiv will have the savvy to decide what benefits it and what does not when dealing with China in the near and long term. Besides, we do not envisage, let alone recommend, that Ukraine’s leaders align with Beijing, something they might have no intention of doing in any event. Our point is that there are sound economic and strategic reasons for Ukraine’s leaders to consider the role China can play in their country. Ukraine can craft a hardheaded relationship with China while simultaneously strengthening ties with Europe and the United States to pursue the larger goal of integration with the West. Kyiv does not face an “either/or” choice. 

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The growth of China-Ukraine political and economic ties will likely raise eyebrows, even create apprehension, in Washington, but American leaders ought to keep in mind another lesson that this war has offered, namely that Ukrainians are fully capable of deciding their future and have the strategic acumen to do so—wisely, without illusions, and with their own national interests squarely in mind. If the United States and its allies seek to limit China’s influence in post-war Ukraine they should, instead of merely warning Kyiv about the risks of building ties with Beijing, play a substantial role in its reconstruction, take steps to increase trade and private investment in that country, and increase its defense capabilities.

A war that has upended many conventional assumptions might end in ways we don’t expect. The same applies to current beliefs about what will happen in a post-war Ukraine and which countries will be the key players. China will likely be among them because it has both the motives and the resources to deepen its involvement.

The Cipher Brief is committed to publishing a range of perspectives on national security issues submitted by deeply experienced national security professionals.  Opinions expressed are those of the author and do not represent the views or opinions of The Cipher Brief.

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