BEIJING - China's effort to cast itself as a peacemaker on Ukraine reflects an aim to burnish its image rather than a change of stance, Western diplomats and analysts said, as it seeks to establish itself as a leader of a new multipolar world order.
A year after Russia invaded its southwestern neighbour, its "no limits" partner China is offering to broker peace. It says it will issue a "position paper" on Ukraine and President Xi Jinping is expected to give a "peace speech" this week, Italy's foreign minister said.
But analysts say China's affirmation of its "rock solid" relationship with Russia and the backing of Russia's line on the war undermines its posture of neutrality, as does a U.S. assertion that China was considering providing weapons to Russia, which China denies.
Beijing's peace overture suggests an attempt to repair ties with some Western countries, particularly in Europe, rather than a major policy shift, European diplomats said, while staking out the rhetorical high ground is an effort to challenge the U.S.-led world order.
It is also likely aimed at building a narrative at home of Xi as a global problem-solver as he begins his third leadership term and China looks to revive an economy battered by three years of COVID-19 curbs.
"At the moment China’s peace effort will stay at the rhetorical level," said Li Mingjiang, associate professor of international relations at Singapore's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
"It's difficult to imagine China taking actual action to mediate between Russia and Ukraine any time soon ... this is China’s small posture change, not any substantive policy adjustment on the war," he said.
To be sure, any serious move by China to resolve Europe's bloodiest land war since World War Two would be widely welcomed, but many diplomats and China-watchers say that when push comes to shove, China will stick by Russia.
That scepticism was reinforced by a pledge by top Chinese diplomat Wang Yi on Wednesday in Moscow that China wished to "deepen" ties, and Russian President Vladimir Putin's announcement that Xi would soon visit Moscow.
Since the war began weeks after Beijing and Moscow announced a "no limits" partnership, Xi has spoken regularly with Putin but not once with his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
In 2022, China's imports of Russian commodities jumped while trade with Ukraine withered.
Still, China is unlikely to provide Russia with military aid any time soon, at least not overtly, experts and diplomats said.
"If Western military support to Ukraine increases the likelihood of Russia's defeat, then the international community should expect stronger efforts from China to prevent that outcome," said Tong Zhao a U.S.-based nuclear expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
"China's calculations are influenced by America's effort to draw a brighter red line for China," Zhao said, referring to a U.S. warning on weapons. "Beijing is seeking to strike a balance between stabilizing its relations with Washington and preventing Moscow's defeat."
China's diplomatic flurry included the release on Tuesday of a paper on the Global Security Initiative, Xi's flagship security proposal that aims to uphold the principle of "indivisible security", a concept endorsed by Russia under which no country can strengthen its security at the expense of others.
Experts and several Western diplomats said the initiative looked like a further effort by China to position itself as a peace-seeking nation while establishing an alternative global framework to the one dominated by the United States.
"The biggest contribution China could make would be to remove its support for Russia, ask Russia to withdraw its troops, get out of Ukraine and for China to support Ukraine financially," said a European diplomat, declining to be identified because he is not permitted to speak to media.
"But that’s not realistic now."
While China supports peace in principle, analysts and diplomats say it does not want an end to the Ukraine war that endangers Putin or his regime, given the risk of instability in a country with which it shares a more than 4,000 km border.
"For Beijing, the key question isn’t whether the war should end; it’s how it should end," said Benjamin Herscovitch, research fellow at Australian National University.
"China still sees Russia as a central element of its overarching strategy to weaken U.S. power and influence and build a multipolar world," he said.
(Editing by Daniel Wallis)