China is on a “diplomatic high” as it seeks to become the “honest broker” of peace in Ukraine, an expert has said, amid reports President Xi Jinping is set to undertake a diplomatic blitz, meeting leaders of Russia, Ukraine and the US in the coming weeks.
China’s president is expected to visit Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow as early as next week, Reuters quoted sources familiar with the matter as saying.
Mr Putin said last month that a visit by Mr Xi to Moscow had been agreed, but the Russian leader did not give a date. The two leaders declared a “no limits” partnership in February 2022 and have kept reaffirming their strong ties since, with China refusing to condemn Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Mr Xi may then go on to speak to Mr Zelensky for the first time since Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February last year, triggering the biggest conflict in Europe since the Second World War, according to sources cited by the Wall Street Journal.
Meanwhile US President Joe Biden said on Monday he would meet Mr Xi soon but declined to say when.
The US president had said in mid-February that he expected to talk to his counterpart in Beijing about what Washington said was a Chinese spy balloon which flew over American air space, an incident which worsened already strained relations between the two superpowers.
Director of the University of Oxford’s China Centre, Rana Mitter, toldi the flurry of diplomatic activity comes as China is “feeling on a bit of a diplomatic high” after its recent success in re-establishing ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran, in what could give the country a “new reputation as potentially international peace brokers which they previously didn’t have.
“They are trying to build on that reputation by looking to see if they can be regarded as honest brokers in the Ukraine crisis,” Prof Mitter said.
Beijing abstained from a draft UN Security Council resolution calling for Russia’s invasion to be deplored, a neutral position Prof Mitter said China took as “it doesn’t want to be seen purely on Russia’s side”.
Yet China knows its relationship with the US is in a “very fragile” positioning and is therefore seeking to keep up terms with other EU powers, mainly Germany and France, Prof Mitter added.
“They want to make it clear that their contributions on Ukraine are helpful but they also don’t want to be so helpful that in any way it endangers Putin in Russia.
“So juggling all of those priorities is what they are trying to do, it’s a very complex piece of diplomacy and it doesn’t seem to me that that’s something which will be easy to resolve,” he said.
Respect for national sovereignty remains at the core of China’s foreign policy, Prof Mitter said, while highlighting how it never explicitly endorsed Russia when it came to the Kremlin’s annexation of Crimea or its invasion of Georgia.
“In terms of their language, it [respect of national sovereignty] has remained a red line, the question is whether that can be put into action in terms of Ukraine’s peace plan,” Prof Mitter said.
Professor Steve Tsang, director of the Soas China Institute in London, told i he thinks the reported meetings would be more of a “gesture of diplomacy” than a way toward “real peace”.
Pointing to how Kyiv would find it “hard” to accept any offer by China because of it being “so supportive” to Russia, he said: “The Ukrainians are unlikely to accept a deal that allows Putin to claim victory and occupy Ukrainian territories.”
But Professor Tsang added there “may well be scope for Xi to play a constructive role” if Mr Putin wanted the war to end and for China to mediate.