For the first time since Russia invaded Ukraine Xi talks with Zelensky. Beijing is stepping up its efforts to position itself as a potential peacemaker in the grinding conflict. On Wednesday, Chinese President Xi Jinping and his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky spoke by phone for the first time since Russia invaded Ukraine.
Zelensky, who had wanted to see Xi for some time, claimed to have had an hour-long conversation with the Chinese leader. All the hot topics in our bilateral ties were covered in our discussion. According to Zelensky’s statement, “special attention was paid to how possible cooperation could be established to establish a just and sustainable peace for Ukraine.”
“There can be no peace at the expense of territorial compromises,” Zelensky emphasized.
A statement from the Chinese Foreign Ministry stated that Xi told Zelensky, “Mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity is the political basis of China-Ukrainian relations.” Xi also restated the Chinese government’s stance on the Ukraine issue, saying that China’s “core position” is to “promote peace and talks.”
China’s Foreign Ministry briefed reporters later on Wednesday, saying it will send an envoy to Ukraine and other nations to aid in “in-depth communication” with all parties to reach a political settlement. Li Hui, the envoy, was the Chinese ambassador to Russia from 2009 to 2019. He is now the Special Representative of the Chinese Government on Eurasian Affairs.
In March, when Xi paid a state visit to Russia and visited Vladimir Putin, the Chinese and Russian presidents declared their alignment on several subjects, including their mutual hatred of the United States.
The long-anticipated call comes only days after China’s senior ambassador in Paris caused a stir in Europe by implying that former Soviet countries had no status under international law in an interview. China has been working hard to rehabilitate its image in Europe, notably by establishing itself as a potential mediator between Russia and Ukraine. These words could gesture to Putin’s stance that Ukraine should be part of Russia.
Although it has called for moderation from “all parties” and accused NATO of fuelling the war, Beijing has thus far refrained from condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine or calling for the evacuation of its troops. Despite its self-proclaimed neutrality, it has strengthened diplomatic and economic links with Moscow.
Beijing’s diplomatic interactions with Moscow and Ukraine also reveal its unequal standing.
Xi called Zelensky on Wednesday; it was their first conversation since Russia invaded Ukraine in February. In contrast, Xi and Putin have spoken five times since the attack, once face-to-face during the Chinese leader’s visit to Moscow last month and again during a regional summit in Central Asia last September.
In light of Xi and Zelensky’s phone conversation, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said on Wednesday that Moscow had taken note of China’s desire to help dialogue with Ukraine.
“We note the readiness of the Chinese side to make efforts to establish the negotiation process,” Zakharova said at a press briefing on Wednesday.
She also acknowledged that conversations are unrealistic under the present circumstances and blamed Kyiv for rejecting Moscow’s initiatives.
Concern amongst diplomats
Before Xi’s state visit to Russia in March, rumors began circulating that China and Ukraine were in talks to organize a call between their leaders.
Analysts then speculated that China was making these steps to present itself as a potential peacemaker in the crisis.
It took weeks after Xi and Putin’s meeting in Moscow for the phone call to happen finally. Ursula von der Leyen, the head of the European Commission, just returned from a visit to Beijing, where she told reporters that Xi had reaffirmed his willingness to speak with Zelensky “when conditions and time are right.”
After China’s ambassador to France, Lu Shaye, said in a television interview last week that former Soviet countries don’t have “effective status in international law,” diplomatic tensions flared, especially in the Baltic states. Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia called on Chinese representatives to clarify their comments.
Officials from other countries, such as Ukraine, Moldova, France, and the European Union, responded negatively to Lu’s remarks.
The Chinese government then distanced itself from Lu’s remarks, claiming that he was merely expressing his views, not the government’s.
An official in the Chinese Foreign Ministry on whether or not the timing of the Xi-Zelensky phone call contributed to the backlash. The ambassador of China to France made some controversial comments, and China has issued an official reaction to them. To that end, “I have been obvious on China’s position (on the Ukraine crisis).”
Weeks before the invasion, on January 4, 2022, Xi and Zelensky were last seen exchanging congratulations and greetings on the 30th anniversary of their countries’ diplomatic bilateral ties.
On the anniversary of Russia’s invasion, China proposed a political solution, ramping up its efforts to present itself as a potential peace mediator in the war.
The West and Ukraine could have better phrased and rejected the proposal since it would not require Moscow to withdraw its soldiers from Ukrainian territory. Xi visited Moscow without meeting with Zelensky, so China’s mediator role was also scrutinized.
Rajan Menon, head of the Grand Strategy Programme at the Washington think tank Defence Priorities, speculates that Xi may have thought there was a chance for progress given the timing of Wednesday’s call between the two leaders.
Xi Jinping is wary of risking his reputation by putting his weight behind a failed initiative. He mentioned Beijing’s role in restoring diplomatic ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran earlier this year as an example of how the Chinese government intends to replicate its success with other countries. According to Menon, this may signify that Putin signaled Xi that he is open to dialogue with Kyiv.
However, Menon noted, there is still a vast gulf in political opinion between the two sides over what constitutes peace. Both remain firmly convinced they can defeat the other in the coming spring offensive.
“Therefore, we shouldn’t expect anything to happen (immediately), but what is clear is that the Chinese have now indicated that they are going to take concrete steps in the direction of mediation, and that is not insignificant,” he said, adding that it remained to be seen whether China would modify its own proposed political solution.