China seeks voice in Ukraine and EU with Volodymyr Zelenskyy call

Chinese President Xi Jinping has met or called his Russian counterpart at least five times since Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. But his first call to Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelenskyy came this week, days after a Chinese envoy angered Europe by questioning the sovereignty of post-Soviet states.

Chinese officials say the timing was coincidental and have hailed the call as the latest step in Beijing’s peace push. But in Europe, the call to the Ukrainian leader is seen by many as “damage control” after the ambassador’s remarks.

“They want to get back in the game and be seen as part of the (peace) project,” a senior EU official said.

After Vladimir Putin ordered last year’s invasion, Xi faced growing criticism in the West for maintaining a close relationship with the Russian president, and the United States warned Beijing not to supply Moscow with weapons.

In February, China released a 12-point position paper on the war, but came under fire in the West for failing to condemn the invasion and containing more veiled criticism of NATO than Russia.

Skepticism in the West rose last month after Xi attended a state visit in Moscow, but did not immediately follow up, as expected, with a call to Zelenskyy.

Many Western analysts believe that Ambassador Lu Shaye’s outburst last weekend, in which he also questioned Ukraine’s sovereignty over Crimea, played a role in precipitating the final call.

Others say China realizes it needs to do more to convince Europe of its sincerity if it wants to participate in any postwar deal. This is particularly important as the EU begins work on a new China policy which is expected to be finalized by the end of June.

“Russia may not win this war,” said Yu Jie, senior fellow on China at the Asia-Pacific Program at Chatham House. “China wants to at least have a voice in post-conflict Ukraine to prevent Ukraine from turning fully west during the post-conflict state-building process.”

In the hour-long talk between the presidents, the first since the war began, China also said it would send a special envoy to travel between the warring parties, its strongest move yet to try to mediate the war. conflict.

The person chosen is Li Hui, a veteran diplomat and former ambassador to Moscow who is currently the Chinese government’s special representative on Eurasian affairs.

Li will participate in “deep communication with all parties on the political solution of the Ukraine crisis,” according to an official Chinese statement.

Wang Wen, dean of the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University in Beijing and a leading pro-government scholar, said Xi’s call “significantly rejects rumors that China is pro-Russian and profits from the conflict. . . China is a peacemaker, not a troublemaker.”

Chinese Foreign Ministry officials attend a briefing on the phone call

Chinese Foreign Ministry officials attend a briefing on the phone call, the first between Ukrainian and Chinese leaders since the war began © Greg Baker/AFP/Getty Images

Chinese scholars in Beijing argued that the call would have been planned weeks in advance and likely had little to do with Lu’s outburst.

Instead, China was taking its time to find its own position on the war rather than being forced into a position by the West, said Cui Hongjian, dean of European studies at the China Institute of International Studies in Beijing.

“China wants its own autonomy; we won’t just ‘follow them,’” she said.

For Ukraine, the call did not produce concrete results. But at least he opened a dialogue with Beijing that would help ensure that China remained militarily neutral. While China’s trade with Russia has increased rapidly, there is no evidence that the country is sending weapons to Putin’s army.

Before the war, China and Ukraine had a close relationship. Academics in Beijing cite Ukraine’s 1998 sale to China of a hull that became the country’s first aircraft carrier as a mark of their long friendship.

On the surface, European leaders praised the call. “This is an important and long overdue first step by China,” said Eric Mamer, a spokesman for Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission.

An Elysee official stressed that Emmanuel Macron had urged Xi to speak with Zelenskyy during the French president’s state visit to Beijing earlier this month.

Macron has long said he believes China has a role to play in influencing Russia and has told his top diplomat to reach out to his Chinese counterpart to prepare for possible peace talks, should Ukraine agree to participate.

US officials, however, responded with skepticism.

“Whether that will lead to some kind of significant peace move or plan or proposal, I just don’t think we know at this point,” said John Kirby, a spokesman for the National Security Council.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said the call demonstrated “China’s willingness to make efforts to straighten out the negotiation process,” but added that the United States would likely put pressure on its Ukrainian “puppets” to reject Beijing’s proposals.

Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, told reporters that Russia was “prepared to welcome anything that could bring the end of the conflict in Ukraine closer” but said that Russia still intended to “achieve all the goals we have been fixed.”

Xi’s call and Li’s appointment as envoy allowed China to continue to position itself as a potential peacemaker while doing little to stop the war, said Alexander Gabuev, director of the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center.

Volodymyr Zelenskyy has his first phone conversation with Xi Jinping

Volodymyr Zelenskyy has his first phone conversation with Xi Jinping, who has called or met with the Russian president at least five times since the conflict began © Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/AFP/Getty Images

“There are positive side effects in the China war: Russia becomes the junior partner selling them energy and other resources at a discount. But there are negative side effects: China is being criticized for supporting Russia. So China must show that it is in favor of peace, not Russia,” Gabuev said.

“European leaders have long said that Xi has to talk to Zelenskyy if he is seriously interested in peace.”

Beijing said that during the call, Xi reiterated China’s opposition to any use of nuclear weapons in war. “Nobody wins a nuclear war,” Xi told Zelenskyy, according to the state news agency Xinhua.

China’s opposition to the use of nuclear weapons is one of the few areas in which it has openly differed from Putin, who has repeatedly threatened to deploy them.

Overall, analysts said, the call represented a “flanking move” by China to bolster its support against its main adversary, the US and advanced technology.

By presenting a more neutral front, China hoped to drive a wedge between the US and the EU while showing the developing world that it was a force for peace, in contrast to Washington, which it accused of injecting weapons. in the war.

“If you want to have more influence over everyone, you have to have the appearance of a certain neutrality,” said Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Beijing Renmin University, adding that “you don’t lose anything” with a simple phone call.

Reporting by Max Seddon in Riga, Henry Foy in Brussels, James Kynge and Yuan Yang in London, and Leila Abboud in Paris

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