China’s Game of Ukrainian Chess

Flags of China and Ukraine behind pawns on the chessboard. Chess game or political rivalry
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Last weekend, Saudi Arabia hosted a two-day summit in Jeddah dedicated to ending the war in Ukraine. Nearly 40 countries attended, including the United States, India, and dozens across Europe. But it was the presence of one nation that raised expectations for a breakthrough – China.اضافة اعلان

China had rejected a similar meeting in Copenhagen
Because China had rejected a similar meeting in Copenhagen in late June, many interpreted its participation this time as evidence Beijing was ready to play a more active role. But an examination of the context surrounding the Jeddah summit suggests a different motivation for China’s involvement. Simply put, peace wasn’t Beijing’s primary concern.

Since the beginning of the Ukraine war, in February 2022, Beijing has avoided anything that would compromise its neutrality or force it to explicitly take a side. This principle of neutrality made it impossible for China to attend the June meeting, given that Denmark is a member of NATO. 

Claim NATO involvement
Although NATO is not directly at war with Russia, its military support to Ukraine gives the Kremlin ammunition to claim NATO involvement. For China, attending the Copenhagen meeting without Russian participation would have tarnished Beijing’s image of objectivity.

By comparison, Saudi Arabia, one of the leading middle powers in the Global South, was a more acceptable host from the Chinese perspective. Saudi Arabia has voted in favor of several UN General Assembly resolutions condemning Russia and demanding an end to the war. But it also abstained from a 2022 vote to suspend Russia from the UN Human Rights Council, and the two countries have been on a more coordinated path recently over oil production and global crude supply. This more nuanced position has made the Kingdom a more natural partner for Beijing. 

But image concerns aside, what is driving China’s involvement now? 
For starters, participating in the Jeddah summit was more about China’s desire to continue sweetening ties with Saudi Arabia than any intention to condemn or force Russia’s hand in Ukraine. China and Saudi Arabia have an important bilateral relationship driven by politics, energy, and trade. Thus, Chinese leaders believe they can endear themselves to the Kingdom by supporting Riyadh’s diplomatic efforts on Ukraine.

Not a pact to act
Even if that calculation is wrong, attending talks costs China nothing. A summit is only an agreement to discuss, not a pact to act.

Even if a consensus among participating countries was reached – it was not– neither Saudi Arabia nor its guests could have imposed their will on Russia (which was excluded from the discussion). In that sense, the Jeddah summit positions Saudi Arabia as a peace mediator but doesn’t bring fundamental damage to China’s bottom line. 

For Beijing, any “neutral” efforts to pursue peace and stability must be honored. This month’s summit could be framed as one such effort given the diverse participation and views represented. Now that China has lent its support to the Saudi endeavor, it wouldn’t be surprising for Beijing to demand reciprocity from Riyadh for its own peace initiative down the road.

Second, China’s participation in peace talks was facilitated by a recent thaw in the US-China relationship. Chinese President Xi Jinping is expected to visit San Francisco in November, which would be one of his most important foreign policy activities of the year. Both countries are trying to rebuild bilateral relations before expected turbulence in 2024, when presidential elections will be held in both Taiwan and the US. 

Finally, Beijing has been a bit more cooperative with the West’s efforts to squeeze Russia over its conduct in Ukraine. Recent moves in this regard are subtle but clear. In July, Beijing imposed new export control measures on Chinese drones, parts, and technologies, dual-use supplies that Russia had been receiving from China directly or via subsidiaries in Iran. 

China also urged the resumption of grain exports
 In a thinly veiled criticism of Russia, China also urged the resumption of grain exports from Ukraine after Russia backed out of the Black Sea grain deal – which had allowed Ukraine to export wheat, barley, and other staples. Most recently, in a rare public display of displeasure, the Chinese embassy in Russia criticized local authorities for mistreating Chinese citizens

The key question in all of this is whether China has fundamentally changed its position on the war. The answer, so far, is no. None of the actions China has taken in recent months have imposed critical damage on Russia’s war capability or induced meaningful changes to Russian behavior. 

In fact, given the long-term nature of US-China competition, China is unlikely to abandon Russia as a strategic partner, even if Russia is weakened in Ukraine. For China, Ukraine – and even Saudi Arabia – are part of a grand political chess match that Beijing has no intention of losing.

Yun Sun is director of the China program and co-director of the East Asia program at the Stimson Center in Washington, DC. 

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