Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky and China’s President Xi Jinping had their first contact since the start of Russia’s war in Ukraine. On Wednesday, the two leaders held a “long and meaningful” phone call, which Zelensky said on Twitter would “give a powerful impetus to the development of our bilateral relations”. China confirmed the call, adding that it “always stood on the side of peace”.
China has sought to appear neutral on the Russian invasion, but it has not condemned the invasion or cut ties with Moscow. Last month, President Xi paid a two-day state visit to Russia and referred to President Vladimir Putin as his “dear friend”. He proposed a vague 12-point peace plan and insisted that China stood on the right side of history, but he made no commitment to providing Russia with weapons.
In response to the visit, Zelensky invited Xi Jinping to visit Kyiv for talks. During their phone call, Xi Jinping said that China, “as a responsible majority country”, would “neither watch the fire from the other side, nor add fuel to the fire, let alone take advantage of the crisis to profit”. This statement appeared to be a swipe at China’s biggest international rival, the US, which has provided the most help towards Ukraine’s response to the Russian war.
White House spokesman John Kirby welcomed the phone call as “a good thing” but said it was too early to know whether it would lead to “some sort of meaningful peace movement, or plan or proposal”. The likelihood of China helping to end the war appears remote, not just because Russia has shown no readiness to withdraw its forces from Ukraine’s sovereign territory. It is a key demand from Kyiv that President Zelensky reiterated: “There can be no peace at the expense of territorial compromises.”
Critics have questioned the idea of Beijing acting as a mediator, citing not only Mr Xi’s firm friendship with Russia’s leader but also China’s soaring trade with Russia and its refusal even to speak of an “invasion”. Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said Moscow saw “broad concord” with China’s approach but said the main barrier was Kyiv’s “unrealistic demands”. Moscow’s own demands include recognition of its annexation of swathes of Ukrainian territory, including Crimea, which was invaded in 2014.
China’s 12-point plan to end the war has been widely criticised by Ukraine and the West. It fails to offer clear plans for Ukraine’s future security or for territory seized by Russia and includes a proposal for unilateral sanctions to be dropped. Despite this, Wednesday’s hour-long call did not come as a complete surprise. Earlier this month, European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said that Mr Xi had spoken of his willingness to talk to Ukraine’s leader when the “conditions and time are right”.
President Zelensky has repeatedly reached out to the Chinese president, an acknowledgement that China’s vast wealth and global influence could swing the outcome of the war. In its readout of the call, Beijing announced its willingness to engage directly with Ukraine, by sending a special representative on Eurasian affairs to Kyiv and other capitals for “in-depth communication” on a political settlement. For his part, Mr Zelensky appointed a former minister, Pavlo Ryabikin, as ambassador to Beijing.
Xi Jinping has had recent diplomatic success by persuading Iran and Saudi Arabia to restore ties. While it is possible he may have developed a taste for the role of a key international stakeholder, there may also be an economic element to his intervention. China’s flagging economy is still fragile after years of tight Covid-19 restrictions. It is dependent on export trade and cannot fully bounce back as the war in Ukraine drags on. News of the phone-call made headline news in China’s carefully controlled state media outlets, which printed China’s interpretation of the call. On Chinese social media sites, users appeared supportive, with many calling for peaceful dialogue and supporting what they saw as China acting like a responsible country.
President Volodymyr Zelensky and Chinese President Xi Jinping had their first contact since Russia’s war began in Ukraine in February 2022. On Wednesday, the two leaders held a “long and meaningful” phone call which Zelensky said would give a powerful impetus to bilateral relations. China confirmed the call and stated that it always stood on the side of peace.
China has sought to appear neutral on the Russian invasion but has not condemned it or cut ties with Moscow. Last month, President Xi paid a two-day state visit to Russia and proposed a vague 12-point peace plan without committing to providing weapons. In response, Zelensky invited Xi Jinping to visit Kyiv for talks.
During their phone call, Xi Jinping said that China would not watch from the sidelines or take advantage of the crisis for profit – an apparent swipe at China’s biggest international rival, the US. White House spokesman John Kirby welcomed the call but said it was too early to know if it would lead to meaningful peace movement or proposal.
Critics have questioned Beijing acting as a mediator due to its close ties with Moscow and refusal even to speak of an “invasion”. Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said Kyiv’s “unrealistic demands” were a barrier to peace. China’s 12-point plan has been widely criticised by Ukraine and the West for failing to offer clear plans for security or territory seized by Russia.
Despite this, news of the phone call was welcomed in China’s state media outlets and social media sites. People called for peaceful dialogue and supported what they saw as China acting responsibly. It is possible that Xi Jinping has developed a taste for being an international stakeholder but there may also be an economic element to his intervention. China’s economy is still fragile after Covid-19 restrictions and cannot fully bounce back while the war continues.