China's Russia-Ukraine negotiations plan isn't that unexpected

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In case you haven’t heard, the latest development in the Russia-Ukraine conflict is actually related to its potential — though unlikely — end. China may be stepping in as a potential negotiator to resolve the conflict, highlighted in a 12-point plan released last month that emphasized a cease-fire and negotiations. This was emphasized by Xi Jinping’s visit to Moscow last week. However, without Russia or Ukraine supporting these negotiation efforts, a peaceful resolution is not exactly the most likely outcome.

What’s most interesting for me is the fact that China is even trying at all to lead negotiations for this conflict. This isn’t the first time they’ve offered to play a role in ending conflict. Charlie Campbell of Times Magazine describes how China helped broker a truce between Saudi Arabia and Iran, reestablishing diplomatic relations between the two countries. He notes that this represents Xi Jinping’s “new willingness to leverage his economic clout in third-party negotiations,” which goes against how previous Chinese leaders have approached foreign conflicts. How I see it, China is a growing world power and is simply acting in ways that are traditionally associated with world powers – the U.S. has approached conflicts in a similar way in the past, with mixed success.

Given China’s role in these two conflicts, some have raised the question of whether this is a signal of America’s decline in influence, and a pivot to the East. To me, however, as always, context is critical. When analyzing the relationships between China, Iran and Saudi Arabia — or even with Russia — compared to the one that the U.S. has with those states, we see these nations heavily favoring China. They demonstrate this preference with their foreign and economic policy, but also in their explicit rhetoric. To put it frankly, these are situations where China has an in, and the U.S. does not. The fact that these are major sources of tension in international affairs doesn’t mean that these countries are any more likely to accept U.S. involvement. When it comes to calming tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia, it doesn’t have to be a hegemony war. Maybe China was simply the best option for negotiations.

If we remove subtext from these actions, and the goal of any negotiation is simply to end war, why wouldn’t we use the most effective third party negotiator?

Of course, subtext does matter, and these negotiations do play a role in framing which nations are the most influential, have the ability to bring people to the negotiating table, and have conducive conversations for peace. The U.S. should look at how this impacts our international standing, and evaluate why these countries would pivot to China when it comes to negotiations.

But when it comes to China's new role as a global peacemaker, there's really no need to freak out. Our international community is potentially experiencing a shift from unipolarity around the U.S. to bipolarity between the U.S. and China, and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing — just a different political order. China’s actions shouldn’t just be viewed in how they relate to the U.S., but also for what they represent in China’s broader role in international politics. And here, China’s simply stepping into their role as a major world power, and the negotiating roles that are associated with that.

Now, I’m not saying that the U.S. should leave China to broker peace in this conflict. The close ties between Beijing and Moscow should certainly be considered before going into a negotiation led by China on a conflict where Russia is a major player. The proposed plan seems likely to leave Ukraine with the short end of the stick. However, I think we need to think twice about the reaction we have to China being a potential negotiating partner in a major conflict. This is neither unprecedented for China nor unheard of from a world power, and should be viewed as what it is: an emerging power taking new steps to fulfill the obligations of that role, and fill the gaps in negotiations left by other players in the international community.