Chinese President, Xi Jinping, finally held a phone conversation with the Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelensky. Xi claims neutrality in the Ukrainian conflict now, having talked to both parties, but nobody believes it, least of all Zelensky as Ukraine faces the armed might of Russia.
The Xi-Zelensky conversation lasted nearly an hour, much of it probably spent on translations. Both sides followed the diplomatic protocol and stuck to niceties and pledged bonhomie, but according to several sources there was no warmth in the conversation. Quite the opposite, there was tension all around because it was for both a “geopolitical tightrope walk” for both of them, as some media reports called it. Xi thinks the conversation with the Ukrainian leader is the icing on his mediation cake, an achievement that comes on the heels of his efforts to bring together old foes like Saudi Arabia and Iran, and Palestine and Israel. The CNN reported that the hour-long conversation, believed to be the first between the two leaders in the fourteen months since Russia invaded Ukraine, also comes with few tangible proposals as to how China might help to bridge the devastating, war-torn divide between the two countries. And its timing – at a moment when Beijing is acutely focused on strengthening ties with Europe amid cratering relations with the United States – also suggests there are more drivers than just peace in China’s move, analysts say.
“Mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity is the political foundation of China-Ukraine relations,” a Chinese statement said. “China’s readiness to develop relations with Ukraine is consistent and clear-cut. No matter how the international situation evolves, China will work with Ukraine to advance mutually beneficial cooperation.” Strangely, the statement did not refer to Russia at all, nor admit that the onus of the conflict lies with that country. But Xi has failed to wipe out the smirk of skepticism from the face of the Western countries, led by the United States, which tell him they know his plans, despite him pledging neutrality in the conflict without ever being so. Xi never condemned the Russian invasion, always backed his “friend” Putin and twice endorsed the great friendship with Russia. Furthermore, Xi allowed rumors to spread about China helping out Russia with arms and ensured that China became Russia’s economic life-line by buying oil and gas and trading with companies placed under sanctions by the West. Their mutual geopolitical antagonism against the United States and its allies far outweighs any responsibility Xi may attribute to the China-Ukraine relationship, something that Kyiv is well aware of.
Notwithstanding Xi’s pledge to do his best under the circumstances, there are fears among US officials that the China-Russia relationship could continue to grow. Ukraine too has shown itself wary of China’s role, noting that the peace plan proposed by China aligned with Moscow’s interests and would allow Russia to remain in occupied Ukrainian territory, including Crimea. But Zelensky and other top officials have refused to rule out Beijing’s role as a mediator and emphasized the future of Ukraine-China relations, perhaps eyeing Ukraine’s need for trade partners in a post-invasion world. China’s official stance is one of an impartial observer, despite having vested interests. At the United Nations Security Council meetings it has refused to join the votes that condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and abstained from most votes (the exception is a vote last year at the General Assembly to suspend Russia from the Human Rights Council; China voted against the measure, calling it “a dangerous precedent”). Ukraine understands the real import of such contrived impartiality.
Zelensky also remembers, and XI can do nothing to make him forget, that just weeks before Russia invaded Ukraine, Beijing and Moscow issued a joint statement after Putin and Xi met in Beijing, which stated there were “no limits” or “forbidden” areas of cooperation between the two nations — widely interpreted as an indication that joint military action was not off the table. That’s not being impartial either. As the Washington Post put it, “Beijing’s view of the conflict is also no doubt informed by its own intentions in regard to Taiwan, the self-governing island that Beijing sees as sovereign Chinese territory.
CIA Director, William J. Burns, told a section of the media in February that Xi wanted his military to be capable of seizing Taiwan by 2027, though that would not mean it would invade by that time. Russia’s experience in Ukraine has “probably reinforced” doubts about whether such an operation could proceed, Burns said. The United States has condemned China for its mixed messages on the war, but Ukraine has taken a more cautious stance. After Xi visited Moscow last month, Zelensky pushed for his own conversation with the Chinese leader. That push finally paid off, but that’s all it is – a conversation – and nothing more.