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Analysis: Xi's Call With Zelenskiy Sets The Stage For Greater Chinese Diplomatic Push In Europe

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy speaks with Chinese leader Xi Jinping on the phone on April 26.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy speaks with Chinese leader Xi Jinping on the phone on April 26.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping spoke with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy for the first time since Russia poured troops into Ukraine 14 months ago, calling for a "political resolution" of the war through dialogue and vowing to send a delegation to Ukraine to hold discussions.

During the long-awaited April 26 call, Xi offered to help facilitate peace talks and appeared to pledge neutrality in the conflict, saying Beijing "will neither watch the fire from the other side nor add fuel to the fire, let alone take advantage of the crisis to profit," according to a Chinese readout.

Zelenskiy, according to the Ukrainian readout, used the nearly one-hour conversation to discuss ways for "possible cooperation to establish a just and sustainable peace" while insisting Ukraine would not give up lost territory and the country must be "restored within the 1991 borders," referring to occupied areas of eastern Ukraine and the Crimean peninsula, which was illegally annexed by Moscow in 2014.

The call was widely viewed as an attempt by China to repair its strained ties with the European Union as the bloc formulates a new policy toward China ahead of a June summit and comes amid a broader Chinese effort to alleviate European concerns over its position on the war in Ukraine, which many analysts and Western officials view as largely favoring Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy
Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy

"Xi still benefits more from his relationship with Russia and has a more strategic interest in keeping it strong than anything Kyiv could offer to replace it," Sari Arho Havren, a Brussels-based China expert and visiting researcher at the University of Helsinki, told RFE/RL. "This is mainly Xi giving European leaders the optics they want to see."

The Xi-Zelenskiy call also came just days after controversial comments made by Lu Shaye, China's ambassador to France, sparked a backlash in Europe following an April 21 interview with the French news channel LCI in which he said countries that were formerly part of the Soviet Union have no "effective status" in international law as he also disputed Ukraine's sovereignty over Crimea.

The comments drew condemnation from European leaders, who accused Lu of undermining the sovereignty of the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania and interfering in the internal affairs of Europe. Others said the comments led them to question Beijing's intentions to mediating peace talks between Russia and Ukraine, which it positioned itself to do in a 12-point proposal in February.

Chinese Ambassador to France Lu Shaye at a conference in Paris in 2019.
Chinese Ambassador to France Lu Shaye at a conference in Paris in 2019.

"The timing of the call looks connected to the storm in the EU that Lu Shaye's comments caused," Arho Havren said. "Xi is doing crisis management and aiming to calm the heated atmosphere in Europe and prevent it from becoming even more anti-China -- and therefore stop it from also becoming more pro-United States in the process."

Watching the War In Ukraine

Xi had resisted pressure from the West and outreach from Kyiv for direct talks with Zelenskiy for months, with Europe pushing China to act responsibly as a top UN member and Xi welcoming European powers to Beijing, including visits by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron.

China remains Russia's top strategic ally amid the conflict, and Xi has held multiple meetings with Putin throughout the war, including a high-profile visit to Moscow in March.

In reaction to the call, European officials expressed cautious optimism, with EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell saying the call "was awaited" and that it is "very good news."

"It is a first step that China will eventually reach out to Ukraine, and we want to say that any meaningful initiative for a just peace for Ukraine is very much welcome," Borrell said during an April 26 press conference during a trip to Colombia.

Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin attend a reception in Moscow on March 21.
Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin attend a reception in Moscow on March 21.

EU officials say they are keen to welcome a more constructive role from Beijing but also note they remain skeptical about China's ability to broker an enduring peace in the conflict. They added that they remain realistic about the longevity of Beijing's deepening relationship with Moscow, pointing to how Xi refrained from using the term "war" to describe the conflict during the Zelenskiy call, referring instead to the "Ukrainian crisis."

An EU official who requested anonymity in order to speak to the media told RFE/RL that the 27-country bloc is watching the Chinese special envoy to Ukraine closely and that Brussels fully supports Zelenskiy.

"It is for Ukraine to decide on the future parameters for any potential negotiations," the official said.

Beijing announced that Li Hui, special representative on Eurasian Affairs, will lead its delegation to Ukraine and "other countries."

Li is the former Chinese ambassador to Russia, serving in the post from 2009 to 2019 and overseeing a pivotal period of deepening ties between Beijing and Moscow that culminated in a "no limits" partnership in February 2022.

Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev (right) meets with Chinese leader Xi Jinping during a state visit to Kazakhstan on September 14, 2022.
Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev (right) meets with Chinese leader Xi Jinping during a state visit to Kazakhstan on September 14, 2022.

In response to the call and the announcement of Li's delegation, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on April 26 that Moscow has taken notice of China's willingness to facilitate negotiations with Ukraine but under current conditions negotiations are unlikely, for which she said Kyiv is responsible.

Damage Control

While Xi's phone call with Zelenskiy looks to capitalize on momentum generated around Beijing's role as a peace broker and stifle blowback from Lu's comments in Europe, Chinese officials also aimed to limit the fallout among former Soviet countries in Central Asia.

In an unusual rebuke of its own official on April 24, China's Foreign Ministry disavowed Lu's remarks, calling them "personal comments."

This was followed on April 26 by Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang, who reaffirmed Beijing's support for the independence and territorial integrity of Central Asian countries when he met with his counterparts from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan in the northwestern Chinese city of Xian.

"China firmly supports Central Asian countries in choosing their own development paths in light of their national conditions," Qin said, adding that Beijing opposes any external interference in Central Asia's internal affairs.

Chinese President Xi Jinping visits Kazakhstan
Chinese President Xi Jinping visits Kazakhstan

Unlike the public anger across Europe from Lu's comments, Central Asian governments were notably silent about the remarks that called their independence into question.

"It shouldn't be a surprise that Central Asian countries didn't publicly criticize Lu's very controversial statement," Temur Umarov, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told RFE/RL. "It's standard practice within their relationship with China to not raise problems like this publicly."

Li's comments on the former Soviet countries were part of a heated debate with a French TV host over Taiwan's right to self-determination. China's ambassador to France is one of the country's most prominent "wolf warriors" -- diplomats known for their aggressive and unapologetic rhetoric defending what they view as China's national interests -- and is no stranger to courting controversy.

Many analysts say it's unlikely Beijing meant to offend its neighbors in Central Asia, especially as China prepares to host its first-ever, in-person summit between Xi and his Central Asian counterparts in May. China has recognized Central Asia as independent since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and settled long-standing border disputes with the five countries in the 1990s.

But the comments are not the first time Chinese's questioning of the sovereignty of former Soviet countries has boiled over.

In 2020, Kazakhstan summoned the Chinese ambassador to protest an article by a private Chinese online media company that said the country was keen to "return to China." The article appeared to be part of a series that emanated from a private entity that also claimed Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, which also share a border with China, wished to "return" to the country. The articles were eventually taken down.

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    Reid Standish

    Reid Standish is an RFE/RL correspondent in Prague and author of the China In Eurasia briefing. He focuses on Chinese foreign policy in Eastern Europe and Central Asia and has reported extensively about China's Belt and Road Initiative and Beijing’s internment camps in Xinjiang. Prior to joining RFE/RL, Reid was an editor at Foreign Policy magazine and its Moscow correspondent. He has also written for The Atlantic and The Washington Post.

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