Cautious Optimism Greets Xi’s Belated Call to Zelensky

On Wednesday, CCP Secretary General Xi Jinping and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky spoke to each other for the first time in the over 400 days since Russia invaded Ukraine. The two leaders held an hour-long phone call at the request of Zelensky, who had publicly urged for direct dialogue on multiple occasions without success. Many Western analysts and governments expressed skepticism that the call would lead to an imminent breakthrough and debated the motivations behind Xi’s long-delayed call, but nonetheless acknowledged it as a constructive step.

Asami Terajima at the Kyiv Independent reported on the outcomes of Xi and Zelensky’s phone call:

In the nearly hour-long phone call, the two sides agreed on appointing Ukraine’s ambassador to China, which Zelensky said would “give a powerful impetus” to developing bilateral relations.

Zelensky later appointed Pavlo Riabikin, the former minister of strategic industries, as the new ambassador. Ukraine’s previous ambassador to China, Serhii Kamyshev, died on Feb. 14, 2022, just over a week before the full-scale war began.

[…] As cited by Chinese state media, Xi said that he would send a special delegation to Ukraine for a “political settlement” of the “crisis,” adding that “China has always been on the side of peace” and “dialogue and negotiations are the only way out of the conflict.”

Without condemning Russia’s brutal war or naming Russia, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said in its statement, “China will continue to facilitate talks for peace and make its efforts for early ceasefire and restoration of peace.” [Source]

The Chinese and Ukrainian readouts of the call show territorial integrity as a shared concern of each nation. As David Pierson, Marc Santora, and Vivian Wang reported for The New York Times, Zelensky told Xi that Ukraine’s borders must not be compromised for the sake of peace:

Mr. Xi reiterated points Beijing has made in the past, saying that China’s “core position” was to “promote peace and talks.” Mr. Xi also said “mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity” was the “political basis of China-Ukrainian relations.”

In their own readout of the discussion, the Ukrainians said Mr. Zelensky had told the Chinese leader that “no one wants peace more than the Ukrainian people” — but that it must be a “just and sustainable” one.

“There can be no peace at the expense of territorial compromises,” Mr. Zelensky said. “The territorial integrity of Ukraine must be restored within the 1991 borders.” [Source]

News of the call was met with cautious approval from the U.S. and E.U. The Kyiv Post collected government reactions from around the world:

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell also welcomed the development, in comments during a visit to Colombia. “It’s a first step. But it’s an important first step,” he told journalists in Bogota.

[…] “We certainly would welcome any effort to arrive at a just peace, as long as that peace could be just, could be sustainable, and could be credible,” said [White House national security spokesman John Kirby]. “And in our view, it’s not going to be sustainable or credible unless the Ukrainians and President Zelensky personally is invested in it and supportive of it.”

[…] Moscow accused Kyiv of undermining any peace attempts, with Russia’s foreign ministry saying: “The Ukrainian authorities and their Western minders have already shown their ability to mess up any peace initiatives.”

Moscow noted “the readiness of the Chinese side to make efforts to establish a negotiation process.” [Source]

Approving but skeptical reactions emerged from Ukraine. “The very fact of a conversation is important, but the functionality for Ukraine is limited because we cannot look for a full and deep partnership there,” said Kyiv-based political analyst Mykola Davydiuk, adding, “There are clear red lines in the communication between Ukraine and China.” Despite a veneer of neutrality, China’s pro-Russian stance undercuts China’s attempts to portray itself as an even-handed and productive arbiter. Last month, Putin hosted Xi in Moscow, followed by a visit from the Chinese defense minister. The special representative that Xi has promised to dispatch to Kyiv, Li Hui, served as China’s ambassador to Russia for ten years and received a friendship medal from Putin in 2019.

The timing of the call was intensely debated. Some argued that it had been planned well in advance, during a telephone call between Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba and his Chinese counterpart Qin Gang last month. China also released a position paper outlining its guiding principles towards peace, and recently facilitated the restoration of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran, bolstering its credibility as a diplomatic mediator.

But events in France may also play a role. The call follows a visit by French President Emmanuel Macron to Beijing earlier this month that led to a controversial rapprochement with Xi. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, also present on the trip, said that Xi was willing to talk with Zelensky when the “conditions and time are right.” Last week, China’s ambassador to France Lu Shaye publicly challenged the sovereignty of ex-Soviet states, including Ukraine, which incited fierce pushback from European capitals. Sinocism’s Bill Bishop wondered: “Could the answer to the question of why did Xi call Zelensky now be as simple as this is the week the EU is starting to work on formulating a new China policy, and he needed to do some damage control after Lu Shaye’s comments?” That appears to be a popular view in Brussels.

Analysts told CNN’s Simone McCarthy that the timing may have been linked to Lu’s gaffe, but such a concession may not be enough to save face

“It is hard to separate the timing of the Xi-Zelensky call from those events,” said Brian Hart, a fellow at Washington think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies’ China Power Project.

“Xi likely timed the call to quell fears in Europe, but it remains to be seen whether the call will help Beijing much… Higher-ups in Beijing walked back the ambassador’s statements, but the damage was done, setting back attempts by Beijing to smooth over worsening ties with much of Europe,” he added. [Source]

David Rank, former chargé d’affaires at the U.S. embassy in Beijing, told Politico that “it’s clear that China is not going to get much traction in its efforts to pry apart Europe from the United States unless they shift their position and try to look a little better on Ukraine.” The Economist noted that the timing of the call was partly driven partly by pragmatic opportunism:

“The fundamentals are the same,” says Alexander Gabuev of the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Centre in Berlin. He suggests that China delayed the Zelensky call over concerns about what Ukraine’s leader might say publicly, but then accelerated plans to help walk back the Chinese ambassador’s remarks and to “show that Macron and others who are enthusiastic about China’s diplomatic role are not mistaken”.

[…] Defusing the row surrounding its ambassador is unlikely to have been China’s main goal. But the timing helps, says Yun Sun of the Stimson Centre, a think-tank. “China doesn’t have realistic expectations that the war will end soon,” she says. “But it doesn’t mean China cannot exploit the opportunity to boost its influence and the goodwill it creates with Europe.” [Source]

Offering another hypothesis, Yurii Poita, an expert on Ukraine-China relations at the Kyiv-based Center for Army, Conversion and Disarmament Studies, stated: “Ukraine is preparing a counteroffensive, and after it, negotiations with Russia may begin. Therefore, China is now trying to create an opportunity for negotiations to take place with its participation, which, in its opinion, will allow it to influence their results.” One analyst told Austin Ramzy at The Wall Street Journal that beyond the need for damage control, Xi must believe that the call will produce some concrete gains related to the war:

Mr. Xi’s willingness to be directly involved in pushing for a resolution to the war suggests China expects to see at least modest results, said Raffaello Pantucci, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

“I would be surprised, if they’re touting Xi as the man point-guarding this, if something didn’t come out of it—because that would be a bit embarrassing for him,” he said. “Maybe it’s not peace in our time, but maybe it’s a small cease-fire or a handover of something.” [Source]


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