China’s Ukraine crisis mediator Li Hui wrapped up his two-day visit to Kyiv yesterday. He is now headed to Poland, France, Germany and Russia. What should we expect? With Poland, he will likely make the case that Poland’s serving as the primary conduit for NATO arms into Ukraine hurts prospects for peace and that Poland should emulate China’s “restraint” in not supplying arms to either side. In France, Li will repeat the Macron’s refrain — music to the Chinese Communist Party’s ears — that France aligns with China in seeking a cessation of violence in Ukraine and doesn’t think that Taiwan figures prominently in Europe’s “strategic autonomy” calculations (a tune which was widely repudiated throughout the EU shortly after Macron riffed on it in Beijing last month). In Germany, the message will be stern Chinese disapproval and “hurt feelings” over the US $2.97 billion (€2.7 billion) military aid package just announced by Germany’s Ministry of Defense late last week. The final stop in Russia will be to debrief Foreign Minister Lavrov (and possibly Putin himself?) over what Li learned from this diplomatic circuit.

When Beijing announced its twelve-point PRC Position on the Settlement of the Ukraine Crisis last February, coinciding with the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, I was immediately skeptical. In 1% Words, 99% Work and in a subsequent Q&A post, I laid out the reasons for my skepticism. I have been often asked since then if I remain equally dismissive and, if so, why. On the first point: Yes, with a single qualification (see below), I remain dismissive. As to why, the question is where to begin?

While China is presenting itself on the global stage as a potential mediator, it is definitional that a mediator needs credibility on both sides to play a meaningful role. Notwithstanding Zelensky’s eagerness to talk with Xi and SecState Blinken’s recent suggestion that China could have some useful role to play in an eventual cessation of hostilities, China has zero credibility as a mediator:

  • Its twelve-point plan is entirely contradictory with respect to Ukraine’s sovereignty and, by freezing in place territorial gains by Russia over the past year, would reward Russia for its invasion
  • China has consistently propped up Russia over the past fifteen months by every means available short of supplying lethal military armaments (and, with its export of dual-use drones, has leaned over that line)
  • Xi’s appointed “mediator” to help resolve the conflict, Li Hui, previously served for six years as China’s ambassador to Russia
  • I could go on at length but, since a picture can be worth 1,000 words, let me simply share one graphic depicting China’s G7 voting record on Ukraine-related measures over the past year and a quarter. It speaks for itself:

So what about the caveat I mentioned above? Since it’s clear that China can’t be a good faith mediator, Xi has a different gambit disguised under his pose as a potential mediator. He is positioning China in Putin’s corner so that, at some future point, he can come to the center of the ring as counterpart and interlocutor with the U.S. and most of Europe coming out from Ukraine’s corner. In Xi’s worldview, China and the U.S. should bargain — as equal powers — over the heads of Zelensky and the Ukrainian people. For Xi, this positioning serves China either way — if it happens, it confirms China’s role on the world stage as a counterweight and as an equal to the U.S. If it doesn’t happen, the U.S. remains mired in its Ukraine engagement, freeing up China to advance its interests in the Mid-East and elsewhere with reduced U.S. pushback.

What eludes Xi’s vision and grasp is the ultimate strength and source of legitimacy of democratic authority. What he is failing to understand is that the U.S. and the community of European nations will not barter away Zelensky’s and the Ukrainian people’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. The end result will be no meaningful mediation and no cessation of hostilities short of a decisive military resolution on the ground. Seen in this light, China’s role is hardly that of a mediator. Xi will advance China’s interest in keeping the U.S. tied up in Europe by confusing the global picture, continuing to prop up Russia by all available means and prolonging the conflict with little concern for the welfare of the Ukrainian people.