• Emmanuel Macron receives this Wednesday the head of Chinese diplomacy, Wang Yi, at the Elysee Palace to discuss the war in Ukraine.
  • The head of state hopes to convince Beijing to intervene with Moscow to engage in talks with Kiev.
  • But does China really have an interest in engaging in negotiations between the two warring countries? How does it benefit from the conflict? Why doesn't she take sides? Elements of answer with Marc Julienne, China specialist at Ifri and Philippe Le Corre, researcher at the American Think Tank Asia Society Policy Institute.

Is Xi Jinping the only head of state who can whisper in the ear of Vladimir Putin, whom he calls his "best friend"? China has never condemned the invasion of Ukraine since February 24, 2022, but also does not seem willing to concretely engage in the conflict by providing military aid to Russia.

While the head of Chinese diplomacy is welcomed this Wednesday by Emmanuel Macron, Paris wants to try once again to convince Beijing to intervene with Moscow to engage in talks with Kiev. Can China take on this role of mediator? How does it profit from war? Can it take sides? Even if China has "the levers to" talk to Vladimir Putin, this idea remains today "illusory", according to Marc Julienne, China specialist at the French Institute of International Relations (Ifri), contacted by 20 Minutes.

Can China mediate the conflict as Emmanuel Macron seems to hope?

The war in Ukraine is on the menu of discussions this Wednesday between Wang Yi and the French president, before a possible visit of Emmanuel Macron to China. During his meeting with his Chinese counterpart at the G20 summit in Bali on November 15, the French head of state asked Xi Jinping to try to convince the Russian president to return to the "negotiating table". But for Philippe Le Corre, a researcher at the American think tank Asia Society Policy Institute, "there is not the slightest hope that China is any kind of mediator," he told 20 Minutes. "In addition to not having the ability, she does not want to," he insists.

Even if Beijing seems to be Russia's partner best placed to try to talk with Vladimir Putin, "it is not able to manage such a complicated crisis between the Europeans and Russia, especially since it is not directly involved," he said. For Marc Julienne, Beijing has "the levers to" weigh the debate, including communication channels, economic pressure tactics, but "it has never undertaken any initiative to promote a process of talks, unlike Turkey for example". It is therefore a project considered "illusory" despite their "unlimited friendship", he says. And if she lent herself to the game, "she would never do it for free, what would she ask in exchange?" asks Philippe Le Corre.

How is Beijing profiting from the war in Ukraine?

It is a strong but unfair friendship between Beijing and Moscow. If China manages to take advantage of the weakening of Russia on the international scene since 2014 and the annexation of Crimea, the invasion of Ukraine has only consolidated these ties and deepened the balance of power. "Before Crimea, Vladimir Putin was always reluctant to engage more with China, especially in energy, trade and space, but since then, this cooperation has been strengthened," Marc Julienne told 20 Minutes. And since then, Beijing has obtained discount contracts for raw materials that make it possible to meet its "colossal needs", especially in terms of energy, adds the China specialist to Ifri. Economically, China is therefore largely there, with bilateral trade between the two Asian powers that has jumped in 2022. In March 2022, just one month after Russia declared war on Ukraine, China's exports to Russia jumped 41.5% year-on-year.

The status quo suits him. Especially since it also takes advantage of Moscow's isolation to impose itself on the international scene. "By not taking sides on one side or the other, it can continue to interact with many countries," and not necessarily Western democracies, notes Philippe Le Corre. But for the so-called autocratic countries, China is today a great power that manages to rally opponents of America in a kind of "friendly authoritarian regimes", illustrates Philippe Le Corre. Thus, Beijing scores points economically and diplomatically. Today, in short, it has replaced Russia, which loses a lot in this war.

Why won't China take sides?

With all these advantages it derives from war, Beijing has no interest in changing its position. Taking the side of Ukraine as well as supporting Russia more could harm it, hence its intention to maintain this fa├žade of neutrality. It cannot reasonably associate itself further with Moscow, at the risk of being targeted by Western sanctions. "If Chinese companies start trading with Russian companies under sanctions, Beijing would be violating sanctions as it tries to spare its relations with the West," Le Corre said.

Our dossier on the war in Ukraine

On the other hand, it cannot turn its back on Russia. "Having Russia among its allies is a great asset," says Philippe Le Corre. And even if it does not recognize the territories annexed by Russia, supporting Ukraine would not be in line with its ideological position. "Beijing and Moscow are in a rivalry of the political model with Western democracies, marked by an ideological divide," says Marc Julienne. But Ukraine is on the side of the European Union, NATO, the West. "China would have a lot to lose by getting more involved and not much to gain," he said. Especially since Beijing has other internal concerns, such as the crisis caused by Covid-19 or the worrying economic slowdown.

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  • War in Ukraine
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  • Vladimir Poutine
  • Xi Jinping
  • Russia
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  • Peking
  • Emmanuel Macron
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