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U.S. signals that it could work with China on Ukraine are a good thing

We don’t know if China will help with Ukraine. But it’s good the U.S. hasn’t ruled it out.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken.Kevin Dietsch / Getty Images

The U.S. is sending out signals that it’s open to working with China to end the war in Ukraine. While some analysts are dubious of Beijing’s recent overtures to play the role of peacemaker, it’s a positive development. There are a number of benefits to the U.S. adopting an open-minded posture toward talking with a great power that has leverage over Russia.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken told The Washington Post on Wednesday that he had an open attitude toward working with China on Russia. “In principle, there’s nothing wrong with that if we have a country, whether it’s China or other countries that have significant influence that are prepared to pursue a just and durable peace. … We would welcome that, and it’s certainly possible that China would have a role to play in that effort. And that could be very beneficial,” Blinken said. He also said there were “positive” items in China’s 12-point peace plan released in February.

Ukraine’s highly anticipated spring offensive could create new diplomatic opportunities for negotiating an end to the war.

That’s an important change in tone from the secretary. China’s rhetorical pivot this year toward offering to play the role of peacemaker in the war this year has been received with skepticism and some pushback — including from Blinken himself. While he is probably still skeptical, his new statements sound more open.

Blinken may have been heartened in part by Chinese President Xi Jingping’s phone conversation with Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskyy, which he called “a positive thing” because it was a potential sign of greater even-handedness. But broader issues of timing could be a factor as well. Ukraine’s highly anticipated spring offensive could create new diplomatic opportunities for negotiating an end to the war. And concerns about U.S. military aid to Ukraine eating into the U.S. weapons stockpile might make those opportunities more urgent.  

There are a few further benefits to sounding open to working with China, even if it’s unclear whether China has the capacity to work toward peace, or even seriously intends to. First, the U.S. knows that this could be an opportunity to create a wedge between Beijing and Moscow. “If the U.S. dismisses China’s role [in diplomacy over the war] out of hand, it will push them closer to Russia,” Trita Parsi, the executive vice president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, a Washington think tank, explained to me. China has a complicated set of conflicting interests on Russia — there's an argument, for example, that a prolonged war benefits Beijing by distracting the U.S. and deepening Russia’s dependence on China. But there’s also the argument that peace benefits China more, by strengthening Russian President Vladimir Putin's beleaguered position and lessening instability in the region.

Second, to whatever extent China has any intention of helping negotiate a meaningful peace, it’s important to keep the door open. Thanks to international sanctions, Russia has come to rely more and more on energy sales and trade with China. Just as the U.S. could play a role in pressuring Ukraine to adopt certain diplomatic positions, Parsi says, China can do so with Russia. Even with China in far closer alignment with Russia, having Beijing as partners in negotiation could be strategically advantageous. 

China’s posture on the war in Russia has generally aligned with Moscow’s interests, and it’s possible that the talk of peacemaking will remain empty rhetoric. But there’s little cost in leaving the door open to talking. The war is constantly evolving, and China’s perception of the consequences of the war is too. The U.S. can help nudge China in the direction of peace by signaling openness to talking.