The PRC’s interests in the Ukraine war are complicated.
China would like to weaken America, Europe and NATO. A Russian win would help bolster China’s plans for Taiwan. But, China also wants access to Ukraine’s resources instead of having them dominated by Russia.
The war has dragged on long enough that it seems likely neither side will win, so the time is ripe for China to try and assert its own agenda.
To do that, China has to play all sides which is what it’s been doing since this war began. But the Communist dictatorship is also launching a world power ‘play’. Xi believes that the war, a conflict between the two existing world powers, is an excellent moment to show that China is superior to both.
China is holding out the threat of providing serious military support to Russia (which considering that it’s relying on Iran for military tech, clearly needs it) to get Western nations and Russia to consider its proposal.
An ideal proposal for China would be to allow Russia to hang on to all or some of the territories it seized but with no further expansion, keep the United States and Europe out of Ukraine, while perhaps persuading Ukraine that China would be a better friend than western nations.
Some of these positions are already favored by the anti-war side in western nations so if nothing else, China would contrive to divide western nations, not only internally, but split off Germany and other war opponents.
But the only thing China really brings to the table is leverage in the form of military aid to Russia. And that’s a weak basis for pulling of Xi’s world power play. Accepting such a proposal would put a temporary pause to the war before it restarts again. Even if Putin is desperate enough to hand over Russia’s stature to China in such a loss of face, essentially acting like a client state of China, Ukraine has little to gain from such an arrangement. The Biden administration had previously signaled that it wanted some more immediate resolution, but it’s unclear that even it would be stupid enough to let that come in a way that makes China a world power.
Unlike everyone else, China has no skin in this game. It’s invested nothing and is willing to invest little except likely promises to “rebuild” Ukraine by importing its mass laborers and corporations. That would amount to a Chinese takeover and as corrupt as Ukraine is, it’s not an African dictatorship either.
So China’s power play is likely to fail, but it’s also best never to overestimate any of the players in this, including Putin and Biden, who have done a bunch of really dumb and destructive things from the start. It’s hard to imagine the world’s two powers just ceding their places to China, but if any of them are capable of it, it’s Biden and Putin who could decide to sacrifice national prestige for the sake of their personal power.