At the dawn of the 20th century, as the Russo-Japanese War grew increasingly violent, the leader of a nation that had never played a role on the global stage stepped forward to become the peacemaker. After more than 100,000 Russian and Japanese soldiers died in the bloody battle of Mukden, Russia’s czar and Japan’s emperor were ready to respond to Theodore Roosevelt’s proposal. He invited each man to send a representative to the United States to negotiate a peace treaty.
Could Chinese President Xi Jinping take a page from Roosevelt’s playbook to end the war in Ukraine? Many differences separate Roosevelt’s United States of 1905 and Xi’s China today. And historical analogues are not cookbook recipes that one can simply follow step-by-step to produce the desired result.
Nonetheless, similarities between these two leaders and opportunities presented by history are instructive. In the early 1900s, the United States was a rising power exercising its influence in the Western Hemisphere, but it had never taken center stage in international affairs. Although Roosevelt had no personal relationship with either the emperor or czar, he was confident that he could deal with any leader as an equal. The United States had not yet become a major military power, but Roosevelt had plans to sail the American fleet around the world, including through the seas between Russia and Japan. And the United States was emerging as a major trading nation.
Today, history has dealt Xi a much stronger hand — if he were to decide to play it. First, China has much thicker relations with both Russia and Ukraine than the United States had with Russia and Japan a century ago. Given Xi’s personal standing with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, and the immense stakes involved for both, neither could refuse his invitation to go to Beijing. As the largest trading partner of both Moscow and Kyiv, China also has significant leverage it could use in trying to persuade each to compromise.
Second, China’s diplomatic position strengthens its hand as a mediator. In the aftermath of Russia’s invasion, China struggled to articulate its public position. On one hand, Russia’s attack violated the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity that Beijing considers pillars of its foreign policy. On the other hand, China has not wanted to alienate a nation with which Xi announced a “no limits” partnership. While awkward, this diplomatic positioning now gives Xi room to maneuver in brokering a deal.
China has strong incentives to end the war. The Russian invasion and ferocious U.S.-led Western response are upending the global economy. Supply-chain interruptions and soaring energy prices are creating uncertainties in financial markets that have caused leading forecasters to reduce their expectations for global growth this year by 0.8 percentage points — or $700 billion. As the largest energy consumer and exporter of goods, China risks losing more from this disruption than anyone but the combatants. Having a vivid memory of the financial crisis of 2008 that almost became a second Great Depression, China’s leaders are rightly worried about risks to the global financial system. As Premier Li Keqiang acknowledged recently, China’s economy faces an increasingly “grave” external environment.
A Chinese initiative for peace could also improve China’s global standing. The storm created by Putin’s brutal aggression, Ukraine’s courageous resistance and President Biden’s mobilization of the West to try to make Russia a pariah are shaping geopolitics for the decade ahead. Having embraced Putin at a meeting just three weeks before the invasion, China has made itself a target for claims that it is just another Russia “with Chinese characteristics.” To prevent Putin’s stink from rubbing off on Xi and his fellow Chinese, prudence would dictate a policy that goes beyond the current calls for an end to the fighting.
Undertaking such an initiative would require preparation, and there are countless devils in the details. Should China act unilaterally or propose a joint venture with the United States? If these two rivals work together as peacemakers, that could help both understand the necessity for operational cooperation to reduce risks of future confrontations, including over Taiwan. Deciding when the time is ripe for mediation also requires calculated judgment. But Russia’s announcement of a pivot in its campaign, together with Zelensky’s recent signals that he is willing to make significant concessions, suggests it may be soon.
As Roosevelt put it at the signing of the peace treaty between Russia and Japan: “It’s a mighty good thing for Russia and a mighty good thing for Japan.” If Xi can take the lead to make peace in Ukraine, it would certainly be a mighty good thing for the world.