From the moment he stepped off a plane in Moscow this week, Beijing’s top diplomat Wang Yi lauded China’s friendship with Russia.

The bilateral relationship was “mature” and “as stable as Mount Tai”, he told Russian president Vladimir Putin, invoking a sacred mountain in China’s eastern Shandong province.

Wang’s visit to Moscow concluded a week of shuttle diplomacy that included stops in France, Italy, Germany and Hungary and is expected to culminate on Friday with China’s mooted release of a Ukraine peace proposal.

But to his western European counterparts, Wang’s warm words for his Russian hosts — though perhaps not as rhetorically effusive as previous encounters — only increased apprehension about Beijing’s closeness to Moscow and undermined its claims of neutrality on the war in Ukraine.

The peace plan, which is timed to coincide with the first anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion, is the most ambitious gambit in Beijing’s uneasy balancing act to present itself as one of the few large powers that is not aligned in the conflict, and therefore best placed to broker a resolution.

China’s motives for playing peacemaker range from its desire to prevent Russia — a useful partner in countering what Beijing sees as US hegemony — from suffering a catastrophic defeat to its desire to improve relations with Europe.

With its economy suffering after a year of Covid-19 lockdowns, China is keen to revive foreign investment and trade and maintain access to European advanced technology as US blacklists choke off its access to critical supplies, analysts said.

“The Ukraine war has played a crucial part in the deterioration of China’s relationship with Europe,” said Li Mingjiang, a professor at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. “It has been a major source of China being put on the defensive. They now want to do something to counter that.” 

Beijing faces significant hurdles to overcoming western scepticism about its stance on Ukraine. While the US and EU have imposed costly energy sanctions on Russia and supported Kyiv’s war effort, China has touted President Xi Jinping’s “no limits” friendship with Putin, who said on Wednesday that he looked forward to a visit by his Chinese counterpart this year. Meanwhile, Xi has not called Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskyy or condemned the invasion.

China has also stepped up trade with Russia, with imports of the latter’s fuel oil and crude reaching record levels in January, Bloomberg reported this week, citing Kpler data.

“I see a big shift in the EU about the PRC [People’s Republic of China],” said Mark Gitenstein, the US ambassador to the EU. People “who felt that we were being hysterical about the PRC . . . don’t feel that way any more at all”.

After meeting Wang at the Munich Security Conference at the weekend, US secretary of state Antony Blinken further ratcheted up western fears, warning that China was considering providing lethal aid to Russia. Beijing responded by accusing the US of fuelling the crisis with its own weapons shipments.

But with US-China relations already at a decade low, particularly following Washington’s shooting down of a suspected spy balloon this month, Wang focused his push on EU powers, meeting German chancellor Olaf Scholz, French president Emmanuel Macron and Ukraine’s foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba among other leaders.

In the west, some said the campaign misfired, with Wang failing to mollify concerns about China’s hawkishness on Taiwan, over which it claims sovereignty, and inflaming tensions with the US over the balloon.

Alicia Kearns, chair of the UK Commons foreign affairs select committee, said “no one is convinced” by Wang’s charm offensive. “There’s a reason there’s no childhood stories of wolves turning into lovely grandmas, only dressing as them to achieve their goals,” she added.

But there are also signs that the European private sector’s interest in the Chinese market is returning. Volkswagen chief executive Oliver Blume was among the first multinational executives to visit China after it scrapped its zero-Covid regime in December.

“China’s relations with Europe aren’t where they would prefer, but also are not as dire as many western commentators suggest,” said Ryan Hass, a China expert with the Brookings Institution think-tank.

Beijing’s peace diplomacy may also be aimed at helping Russia find a way out of the conflict that would avoid disaster for the Putin regime.

“Yes, they want better relations with Europe, but they also don’t want this war to go in a direction where Russia is completely defeated,” said Yun Sun, a China expert at the Stimson Center think-tank in Washington.

While Beijing has not floated any firm details about its peace proposal, the foreign ministry has said it will reaffirm Xi’s earlier calls to respect sovereignty and territorial integrity, “take seriously the legitimate security concerns of all countries”, uphold the UN Charter and avoid nuclear war.

“China is very clear eyed about the level of Putin’s obsession about this war and the level of Ukraine’s willingness to continue to fight. And western support for Ukraine is still there,” said Alexander Gabuev, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“The peace plan will be very much a framework — not workable solutions, but some principles,” Gabuev added.

Henry Huiyao Wang, founder and president of the Beijing-based Center for China and Globalization, said a ceasefire should be part of any negotiations and suggested talks could involve the five permanent UN Security Council members, plus the EU and Ukraine. “China also favours a UN approach,” he said.

Ukraine and its western partners would be unlikely to countenance a ceasefire, however, unless Russia withdrew from occupied territories, analysts said.

Ukraine’s Kuleba said Wang had “shared the key elements” of Xi’s peace plan in Munich, but Kyiv was waiting to see the actual text.

Most analysts familiar with China’s past mediation efforts expect the plan to involve few specifics, making it of limited use in solving a conflict as complex as that in Ukraine. Beijing’s seriousness about pursuing peace will also face a test on Thursday with a closely watched UN vote on a Kyiv-authored resolution calling for Russia’s withdrawal, on which China is expected to abstain.

“For China to really improve relations with Europe in a meaningful way, you need to take some actions instead of just policy documents,” said Li of Nanyang Technological University. “If China increases engagement with Ukraine, that would be helpful. Even just a phone call.”

Additional reporting by Yuan Yang in London and Christopher Miller in Kyiv

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