Chinese President Xi Jinping has met or spoken by phone with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, at least five times since the start of Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine. But the first conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky only took place this week, days after a Chinese diplomat angered Europe by challenging the sovereignty of post-Soviet nations.
Chinese officials argue that the timing is a coincidence, hailing President Xi Jinping’s conversation with Volodymyr Zelensky and explaining that it is part of Beijing’s peace efforts. “But, in Europe, the conversation of the Chinese president with the Ukrainian leader is considered by many to be an action to control the negative effects, according to the statements of the Chinese ambassador in France”, Lu Shaye, who cast doubt on the legitimacy of the sovereignty of the former Soviet states, comments the Financial Times daily.
“They want to get back into the game and be considered part of the peace project,” said a high-ranking official from the European Union, under the protection of anonymity.
After Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine in early 2022, Xi Jinping faced criticism from the West for maintaining a close relationship with the Russian president, and the United States warned Beijing not to supply arms to Moscow. In February, China presented a draft proposing options for ending the war, but the Chinese plan was denounced in the West for refusing to condemn the Russian military invasion and for including more criticism of NATO than of Russia. Western skepticism intensified in March, after Xi Jinping paid a visit to Moscow but did not call Volodymyr Zelensky immediately afterwards, as many expected.
Many Western analysts believe that controversial statements made late last week by the Chinese ambassador to France, Lu Shaye, who also cast doubt on Ukraine’s sovereignty over Crimea, played a role in speeding up Xi Jinping’s conversation with Zelensky. Others believe that the Chinese administration understands that it needs to do more to convince Europe of its sincerity if it is to participate in post-conflict plans. This is all the more important as the European Union begins the elaboration of the new policy towards China, which should be presented at the end of June.
“Russia may not win this war. China at least wants to have a voice in Ukraine after the conflict, to prevent Ukraine from turning completely towards the West during the post-conflict reconstruction process,” argues Yu Jie, a senior expert on China in the Chatham Institute’s Asia-Pacific Program.
“Xi Jinping’s conversation with the leader of Ukraine provides significant arguments to challenge the rumors that China has a pro-Russia attitude and benefits from the conflict. China wants to promote peace, not generate conflicts,” says Wang Wen, dean of the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies from Renmim University in Beijing.
Other analysts in Beijing argue that the Chinese president’s talk with his Ukrainian counterpart was planned several weeks in advance, probably only slightly related to the controversial statements of the Chinese ambassador to France.
China configures its position on the war over time, it does not want to be forced by the West to take a stand, explains Cui Hongjian, the dean of the European Studies Faculty at the Beijing Institute for International Studies. “China wants autonomy, not simply to follow others”, pointed out Cui Hongjian.
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