Chinese President Xi Jinping and Ukrainian President Vlodomyr Zelenskyy have finally spoken for the first time since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February last year.
Important step forward
Europe and the US generally reacted positively to the phone call, with the US affirming that it is a “good thing”, and Eric Mamer, spokesperson for European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, calling it “long overdue” but “important”.
In retrospect, some senior European officials and politicians, such as French President Emmanuel Macron, have even staked their political capital on asking China to intervene, and are certainly more than happy with this outcome.
In response to the Xi-Zelenskyy call on 26 April, the Ukraine side released a relatively positive message, with Zelenskyy describing the call as a “long and meaningful” one discussing “the ways of possible cooperation to establish a just and sustainable peace for Ukraine”.
Andrii Sybiha, the deputy head of the Office of the President of Ukraine, showed even more optimism, asserting that the call was “one more important step forward to stop the war”.
These [Xi's] remarks made a gibe at India and explicitly criticised the US, asserting that everything China does is “above board”, unlike some other countries.
However, Zelenskyy also stressed that there can be “no peace at the expense of territorial compromises”, reflecting that the road to peace talks will not be a smooth one.
According to the Chinese foreign ministry, Xi had expressed during the call that mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity is the political foundation of China-Ukraine relations. Hence, China is first and foremost reassuring Zelenskyy that the country does not acknowledge Russia’s annexation of Ukrainian territories, and also implying that various countries should not hold double standards over the Taiwan issue.
Xi also highlighted China’s role as a “peacemaker”, stressing that China “would not sit idly by, nor would it add oil to the fire, still less exploit the situation for self gains”. These remarks made a gibe at India and explicitly criticised the US, asserting that everything China does is “above board”, unlike some other countries.
China will send its “expert on Russia” and special representative of the Chinese Government on Eurasian Affairs Li Hui to Ukraine and other countries to conduct “in-depth communication” with all parties...
Impetus for China's involvement
The most important outcome of the Xi-Zelenskyy call is that China will send its “expert on Russia” and special representative of the Chinese Government on Eurasian Affairs Li Hui to Ukraine and other countries to conduct “in-depth communication” with all parties on the political settlement of the Ukraine crisis. This is a clear signal marking the start of China’s active participation in promoting peace talks and mediating the conflict.
Some European officials and commentators believe that Xi finally speaking to Zelenskyy was triggered by the outrage over Chinese ambassador to France Lu Shaye’s controversial remarks last week. Following the furore over Lu’s comments about the sovereignty of former Soviet countries such as Ukraine, it became necessary for China to quickly put out the fire.
Other European officials believe that Xi’s phone call with Zelenskyy was all thanks to Macron, and even von der Leyen. During a trilateral meeting in Beijing between China, France and the European Union on 6 April, in addition to raising European concerns about human rights and other issues, Macron and von der Leyen also urged China to use its influence with Russia to play a greater role in mediating the Russia-Ukraine war.
Von der Leyen said after the meeting that Xi was willing to speak to Zelenskyy when the conditions and time were right. Some Western commentators criticised that the pair had made a futile trip to China, and even accused Macron of “playing into China’s hands”. Now, it appears that their persuasion is bearing fruit after all.
... ensuring the greatest chances of successful mediation with the least amount of resistance; being seen as a passive mediator rather than an aggressor; and reinforcing China’s image as a responsible great power...
The right time
So what was the reason behind the recent phone call between the Chinese and Ukrainian leaders? Was it because of Lu or the persuasiveness of Macron and von der Leyen? The real answer may be that China had long been preparing for this and was waiting for the best opportunity to act.
This opportunity includes ensuring the greatest chances of successful mediation with the least amount of resistance; being seen as a passive mediator rather than an aggressor; and reinforcing China’s image as a responsible great power that is not trying to benefit from the conflict.
In fact, on the first anniversary of the war in Ukraine on 24 February, China released a statement about its position on the political settlement of the Ukrainian crisis, indicating that it had already made preparations. One important background is the prolonged war between Russia and Ukraine, which has tired both sides as well as the US and Europe. Furthermore, Ukraine’s planned spring counteroffensive has not materialised.
When Macron and von der Leyen asked China to get involved during their visit this month, the time was ripe — the only thing left to do was to choose a date.
Potentially another diplomatic success
But after this first step, whether China can play a substantive role in promoting peace is still being debated. Sceptics believe that China must form an alliance with Russia against the Western blockade for its own interests. While the first article in the aforementioned “political settlement” released in February mentions “respecting the sovereignty of all countries”, China has yet to condemn Russia or demand its withdrawal from Ukraine, so it is difficult to believe that China’s declared neutrality is not “pro-Russia neutrality” and that its mediation efforts will not be biased.
... since China has already struck a pose to enter the ring, it will not just put on a show.
However, this interpretation may not reflect China’s strategic calculations, and may underestimate China’s ambitions amid the China-US competition. The war in Ukraine has led to geopolitical tensions, instability in Northeast Asia, and the involvement of many countries in the Taiwan issue, which is not in line with China’s interests.
China has repeatedly emphasised that the Taiwan issue is the “core of China’s core interests”. Equally important is that after recently facilitating the resumption of relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran, China is likely to seek another diplomatic success and show that it can offer effective solutions that are different from those of Washington in dealing with international issues.
So, can Beijing successfully mediate the war in Ukraine? This is easier said than done, and it is not something that any country can achieve on its own. However, since China has already struck a pose to enter the ring, it will not just put on a show.
China will probably seek to leverage its strengths and help Europe achieve peace or a ceasefire as soon as possible. This is a more challenging diplomatic test than mediating the resumption of Saudi-Iran relations, and it will also set off another competition between China and the US, reflecting another vane of international geopolitical direction.
This article was first published in Lianhe Zaobao as “元首通话启动中国斡旋俄乌冲突第一步”.
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