– It was the first time that the two leaders had acknowledged speaking to each other since Russia invaded Ukraine 14 months ago, and both sides announced it with a note of diplomatic triumph: A Chinese readout mentioned the “current rise of reasonable thinking and voices from all sides,” while Zelensky wrote on Twitter that it was a “long and meaningful conversation.”
Behind the niceties, however, is an unmistakable tension. The call was a geopolitical tightrope walk, as the Ukraine-China relationship becomes a balancing act for both parties.
China, which announced in its readout that it would send a special representative to Ukraine and other countries to hold talks with all parties on resolving the “crisis,” hopes to buoy its growing reputation as a peacemaker and diplomatic heavyweight, offering an alternative to the West in that area. China has issued a 12-point proposal for peace in Ukraine and said Wednesday that it would not “exploit the situation for profit” — a thinly veiled jab at the United States.
But while Xi has pledged neutrality in the conflict, China’s refusal to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has rankled many in Kyiv and elsewhere. Moreover, China has become an economic lifeline for Russia, buying oil and gas and trading with companies placed under sanctions by the West. The two sides are united by mutual geopolitical antagonism against the United States and its allies.
There are fears among U.S. officials that China and Russia’s relationship could continue to grow. One U.S. intercept of Russian intelligence revealed in leaked secret documents, reported on first by The Washington Post, alleged that China had approved “provision of lethal aid” to Russia earlier this year. Chinese officials have denied they would provide arms to either party in the war.
Ukraine 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, perhaps eyeing Ukraine’s need for trade partners in a post-invasion world, emphasized the future of Ukraine-China relations.
As the Ukrainian leader put it on Wednesday, “I believe that this call … will give a powerful impetus to the development” of those relations.
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China’s official stance is one of an impartial observer. At the United Nations, it has refused to join the votes that condemned Russia since the invasion of Ukraine, but it has largely not officially sided with Moscow either. Instead, China has 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”).
Historically, relations between Moscow and Beijing were frosty throughout much of the Cold War. When the Soviet Union fell, China normalized its relations with Russia and soon opened diplomatic relations with the newly independent Ukraine.
After 2014, Beijing maintained a skeptical view of the government in Kyiv, with state media portraying the protests that helped bring it to power as a Western-backed “color revolution.” China abstained from a U.N. vote condemning the Russian annexation of Crimea that same year, citing its official policy of noninterference in other nations’ affairs, but it did not recognize Crimea as part of Russia.
Just weeks before Russia invaded Ukraine, Beijing and Moscow issued a joint statement that year after Russian President Vladimir Putin and Xi met in Beijing on Feb. 4, 2022, that said 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 doesn’t exactly help China look like an impartial observer.
Beijing’s view of the conflict is also no doubt informed by its own intentions in regard to Taiwan, a self-governing island that Beijing sees as sovereign Chinese territory. Lu Shaye, China’s outspoken ambassador to France, raised a storm this week by questioning the status of post-Soviet states as independent countries — an echo of how Beijing views Taiwan (the Chinese Embassy in France later walked back Lu’s comments).
CIA Director William J. Burns told CBS’s “Face the Nation” 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. The Russians’ experience in Ukraine has “probably reinforced” doubts about whether such an operation could proceed, Burns said.
After Xi visited Moscow for a state visit with Putin last month, Zelensky pushed for his own conversation with the Chinese leader. This week, that push finally paid off.
There are few illusions about China’s ties to Russia in Kyiv. But the Ukrainian leader is not alone in thinking that the path to peace in Ukraine may run through Beijing. “The Russian aggression in Ukraine has dealt a blow to [international] stability,” French President Emmanuel Macron said before meeting Xi during a trip to Beijing earlier this month. “I know I can count on you to bring back Russia to reason and everyone back to the negotiating table.”
China has had unprecedented success as a mediator recently, helping craft a deal that saw Saudi Arabia and Iran return to normal diplomatic relations earlier this month. Dispatching Li Hui, China’s special representative for Eurasian affairs and a former ambassador to Moscow, suggests that Beijing hopes for another diplomatic success.
Given China’s ties to Russia, antagonism toward the United States and its allies, and hegemonic designs on Taiwan, the country is far from a perfect mediator in Ukraine. But other prospective mediators like Turkey and Brazil offer little of the political weight that Xi’s China can bring to bear on Russia, which is clearly the lesser power in its relationship with Beijing.
And when the war does finally end, Ukraine will be looking for new economic partners to help it rebuild and replace the trade it once had with its giant neighbor. China, the world’s second largest economy, may be too big to alienate now. Unless the United States and its allies can offer an alternative, Ukraine has little choice but to accept the risks.