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Can Ukraine’s Outreach to China Really Work?

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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has been unable to secure a direct line with China’s Xi Jinping since Russia invaded his country in February.

But that hasn’t stopped Zelenskiy from calling on the Chinese president to use Beijing’s political and economic influence over Moscow to help end Ukraine’s six-month war.

“I would like to speak directly. I had a conversation with Xi Jinping [a] a year ago,” Zelenskiy told the Hong Kong-based newspaper. South China Morning Post August 4. “Since the beginning of the large-scale aggression on February 24, we have officially requested a conversation, but we [haven’t had] any conversation with China, although I think that would be helpful.”

China has proven to be Russia’s most important partner since its invasion of Ukraine, with Beijing refusing to condemn Moscow’s actions, including alleged war crimes. Beijing has also echoed the Kremlin’s narrative that the war is a “special military operation” brought about by unchecked NATO expansion.

Despite this, Zelenskiy said he still believed China could use its leverage with Russia to push for a negotiated end to the war. “It’s a very powerful state. It’s a powerful economy… So [it] can influence Russia politically and economically,” he said. “And China is [also a] permanent member of the UN Security Council.

Zelenskiy’s comments are part of a diplomatic strategy – adopted by Kyiv since the start of the war – which has so far failed to yield results. Analysts say this highlights a disconnect between the Ukrainian government’s view of China and the negative opinions within the Ukrainian community of political experts.

A television screen broadcasts news about Russia's invasion of Ukraine at a shopping mall in Hangzhou, eastern China, on February 25.

A television screen broadcasts news about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine at a shopping mall in Hangzhou, eastern China, on February 25.

“If Zelenskiy is reaching out via Chinese media, it means the diplomatic channels are probably not working and could even be worse than the way they are. [appear]Yuriy Poita of the Kyiv-based Center for Army, Conversion and Disarmament Studies told RFE/RL. [Ukrainian] community of experts, where China is now mostly seen as offering tacit consent and even support for Russia’s war. »

China and the Ukrainian War

Throughout the war, China became a powerful outlet for Russian disinformation and propaganda, with Beijing officials and state media adopting Moscow’s justification for the invasion and often repeat false statements on the events while ignoring Kyiv’s comments.

One of the few exceptions was an April 30 interview by Chinese state news agency Xinhua with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba. During the interview, Kuleba was given the opportunity to criticize Russia and urge China to play a bigger role in bringing Moscow to the negotiating table, warning of the international fallout from continuing the war. . “This war is not in line with China’s interests. The global food crisis and economic problems … will pose a serious threat to the Chinese economy,” he said.

Kuleba held talks with his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, during the war and Xi expressed concern about the growing human toll from the fighting. But Beijing has refrained from criticizing Moscow and stuck to its position that NATO – and the United States in particular – is to blame for pushing Russia to attack its neighbour.

In early February, Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin declared a “limitless” partnership between their two countries. While Beijing has carefully calibrated its external support during the conflict, it has also provided a financial lifeline to Russia through continued exchanges and provided diplomatic cover for Moscow with international bodies such as the United Nations.

Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry did not respond to RFE/RL’s request for comment on Kyiv’s outreach to China.

Before the war, Ukraine sought to establish strong economic ties with Beijing as it reoriented its economy away from Russia and sought to balance what it saw as an overreliance on the West for its support. In 2013, Xi and then-President Viktor Yanukovych signed an agreement under which China would protect Ukraine in the event of a nuclear attack, an agreement which received new exam after the Russian invasion.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych (left) and Chinese President Xi Jinping sign agreements in Beijing during a visit in December 2013.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych (left) and Chinese President Xi Jinping sign agreements in Beijing during a visit in December 2013.

Ties were strained in 2021 when Ukraine blocked Chinese investors from acquiring Ukrainian aerospace company Motor Sich, reportedly due to lobbying from Washington to prevent China from acquiring valuable military technology from the Ukrainian company. .

An RFE/RL investigation in the same year also found that Ukraine bowed to Chinese pressure to delete his name of an international statement on human rights violations against Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in the western Xinjiang region of China. Beijing had threatened to limit trade and deny access to COVID-19 vaccines from Kyiv.

Poita, the Ukraine analyst, said that despite Beijing’s reluctance to break with Moscow so far, some officials in Kyiv still believe Ukraine’s ties with China could bear fruit. “Even with all the bilateral documents between Ukraine and China, it seems that this partnership has collapsed,” Poita said. “Ukraine’s best hope now is simply that China does not provide military or other assistance to Russia.”

Beijing and Moscow Bonds

The war in Ukraine has also changed the way Beijing and Moscow see themselves and the West, according to Bonny Lin and Jude Blanchette of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. In a recent article published in Foreign Affairs magazine, they argued that China could take a more aggressive stance foreign policy following the events in Ukraine.

“A final element of China’s foreign policy overhaul involves military force. Beijing believes the West is unable to understand or sympathize with what it sees as legitimate Russian security concerns,” they said. writes Lin and Blanchette. “There is no reason for China to assume that the United States and its allies will handle China’s concerns differently. Because diplomacy is not effective, China may need to use force to demonstrate his resolve.”

China has fired several missiles around Taiwan and started live-fire military exercises following an August 3 visit by US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi to the self-governing island that Beijing claims as its own territory.

Chinese troops conduct military exercises off Taiwan on August 5.

Chinese troops conduct military exercises off Taiwan on August 5.

In response to rising tensions, the Kremlin offered strong support for China and what it called its right to hold drills off the coast of Taiwan. Moscow too blamed washington to fuel the crisis.

Research by the German Marshall Fund’s Alliance for Securing Democracy found that Pelosi’s trip had become the focus of Russian propaganda. In a 48-hour period coinciding with his visit, Taiwan overtook Ukraine to become the second most mentioned country by Russian officials and state media on Twitter, behind Russia.

“[Russian propaganda] used Pelosi’s trip to portray the United States as an aggressive and reckless power and they portrayed China as a victim who was right to protect its interests,” said Joseph Bodnar, an analyst at the Alliance for Securing China. democracy, at RFE/RL.

For Ukraine, heightened tensions over Taiwan — and between China and the United States — point to a diminishing likelihood that Beijing will be willing to use its influence to pressure Russia or consider Ukrainian interests, Poita said.

“This growing competition means that Russia is too important for China to let go of for now,” he said. “Perhaps it’s time for Ukraine to have a broader discussion about China and destroy those illusions about it that still seem to exist.”

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