Ukraine and Beyond: Can China’s Diplomacy Match Its Economic Power?

Image by Tuangtong | Canva

Is China ready to be a global diplomatic playmaker? And why might it be a good thing if they were? How is China’s diplomacy working to adjust to the Ukraine invasion?


Russia’s invasion of Ukraine rocked post-Cold War diplomacy principles. Under The United Nations Charter, Russia agreed that “all Members shall refrain ….from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state”.  Not since the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq in 1990 had the principles of state sovereignty been so flouted. This time it was by a Permanent Member of the UN Security Council. Russia’s invasion will be a lasting stain on Russia’s diplomatic credentials but what about China, another Permanent Member and guardian of the Charter?  China is an economic superpower with significant military capability. But what of its current diplomatic credentials to broker a peace deal in Ukraine?


In February 2022, China was Ukraine’s most influential ally. Its Confucius Institutes were teaching Ukrainians Mandarin and promoting exchange visits.  And China was Ukraine’s leading trading partner, with massive investment in Ukraine’s transport infrastructure. Ukraine was among the 140 countries in China’s global Belt Road Initiative. Zelensky responded with some favors to China – not joining European criticism of China’s treatment of the Uyghurs. But in February 2022, .’ Nevertheless, they seem to have been deceived by Putin over aspects of the Ukraine invasion. They were flat-footed in failing to warn Chinese citizens to leave Ukraine. Chinese students were killed by Russian missiles.


China’s diplomacy was successful with Ukraine before the invasion. But how has its diplomacy evolved since?


China has faced a balancing act between wanting to react to what it sees as a Western plan to limit its influence and territorial ambitions in the South China Sea and recognizing that it needs to reinforce global trade and investment links to guarantee its 21st-century prosperity.


Following its declaration of the ‘no limits’ alliance with Russia, China is now making new signals to the West. China’s foreign minister, Qin Gang, has claimed that if China had known about Putin’s invasion plan, Beijing would have tried to prevent it. China originally backed Russia’s claim that it was NATO’s and Ukraine’s aggression that provoked the war. But a study in early 2023 showed China has rarely referred to NATO’s aggression in recent months. And China has scaled back its ‘wolf-warrior- aggressive social media messaging in diplomacy. Now China’s diplomacy is rebuilding bridges with NATO and EU countries. Visits from French, German, and EU leaders have become top of China’s agenda. The EU imports more from China than any other country.


China’s diplomatic messages on the Ukraine conflict are not resonating with many states, particularly in the Global South. Many assume that the 21st century will be Asia’s, particularly China’s. China is already a top trade partner with more than 120 countries worldwide. In The Middle East, China has successfully silenced any criticism of their actions again the Muslim Uyghurs in Xingjian. And China has brokered a recent reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Iran. China now needs global support for its diplomacy on Ukraine.  It remains a regional rival for influence with Russia in former Soviet territories, now the independent ‘Stans’ in Central Asia with no interest in recreating the Soviet Union. The Economist recently noted 25 countries non-aligned with either the United States or China, including  Indonesia, Brazil, Mexico, UAE, Saudi Arabia,  Egypt, and Turkey.  China abstained on the latest UN Resolution on Ukraine in  February 2023, which said Russia should ‘ immediately, completely and unconditionally withdraw all of its military forces from the territory of Ukraine…’  19 of these 25  ‘non-aligned ‘ countries, many partners in the Belt Road Initiative, rejected China’s approach and said Russia should withdraw. This showed limited Chinese diplomatic influence.


What of China’s new diplomacy as a mediator? China has proposed a Ukraine peace plan, with US Secretary Blinken welcoming what could be a positive role. But China and Russia may be hoping that if the conflict is prolonged, a re-elected Donald Trump will cut U.S. aid to Ukraine. He seems to see the two sides in personal terms. He has repeatedly said he likes and gets on with Putin. And Zelensky did not ‘do him a favor’ over investigating Hunter Biden. Trump wants to mediate and has said he could solve the issues in 24 hours. Xi Jinping has been more serious and has now talked directly to Zelensky.  Some Russian TV commentators called this a betrayal.


Other countries are not leaving the mediating to China. Saudi Arabia has already brokered a prisoner swap between Ukraine and Russia and given humanitarian aid to Ukraine.  China’s BRICS group partners of South Africa and Brazil have not endorsed China’s lead in mediation. The President of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa, recently led an African Mission to peace mission. South Africa called on Russia to end the war and return Ukrainian children taken by RussiaLula da Silva also appears to want to give Brazil a role in mediation.


A key part of China’s future diplomatic strategy is its relations with India. China’s close alignment with Russia has alarmed India, a partner in BRICS but a traditional regional rival of China with a history of violent border disputes. India is now buying less military equipment from Russia and is opposed to China’s territorial ambitions. India has recently undertaken military exercises with Japan. It is currently President of the Shanghai Cooperation Council and G 20. It recently preferred an online format to host the SCC Summit avoiding inviting Xi Jinping and Putin to Delhi.


The Ukraine invasion has caused a significant effort to expand China’s diplomatic influence. In the first year, it did condemn Putin’s suggestion he might use nuclear weapons.  But it was absent in diplomatic negotiations by Turkey and the UN for the Ukraine grain deal.  Now China’s economy is slowing as the EU and US seek to ‘derisk’ China. The Prigozhin insurrection caught China by surprise, unaware of the turmoil in Russian military circles. Prigozhin said Russian and Chinese justified the invasion as NATO aggression as  ‘lies.’  Recently a Chinese ambassador has suggested China would support Ukraine in regaining all its territory seized by Russia. China needs a globally effective diplomatic role to promote its trade and investment. The world’s economy cannot function properly without China as a source of finance, a massive market, and a producer of vital goods for export. But  China has yet to prove it has the global diplomatic clout to craft a feasible solution to the Ukraine conflict. Perhaps China is regretting allowing Russia to skew its diplomatic agenda since February 2022. Chinese diplomacy needs a high degree of global harmony that does not tolerate conflict, particularly over boundary issues that the world thought it had settled decades ago. For its part, the world needs a diplomatically consequential  China – as a problem-solver, not a problem-maker.


Paul Webster Hare was a British diplomat for 30 years and the British ambassador to Cuba from 2001-04. He is currently a Senior Lecturer in international relations at the Frederick S Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University.

We welcome for consideration all submissions that adhere to three rules: nothing defamatory, no snark, and no talking points. It’s perfectly acceptable if your view leans Left or Right, just not predictably so. Come write for us.

Share With Your Connections
Share With Your Connections
More Exclusive Content
The Latest News from in Your Inbox
This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

We will NEVER SELL YOUR DATA. By submitting this form, you are consenting to receive marketing emails from: You can revoke your consent to receive emails at any time by using the SafeUnsubscribe® link, found at the bottom of every email. Emails are serviced by Aweber

The Latest News from in Your Inbox
This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

We will NEVER SELL YOUR DATA. By submitting this form, you are consenting to receive marketing emails from: You can revoke your consent to receive emails at any time by using the SafeUnsubscribe® link, found at the bottom of every email. Emails are serviced by Aweber

Write for

Thank you for your interest in contributing to Please note that we are currently not accepting submissions for Exclusive Content; we appreciate your understanding.