Swiss Peace Summit Widens Gap Between Zelensky and China

The Swiss peace summit concluded over the weekend with what Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky hailed as the “first steps towards peace,” but much remains unresolved before Russia might conceivably agree to cease its war against Ukraine. The summit attracted around 100 delegations from countries and international organizations, 82 of which signed a joint communiqué emphasizing the importance of Ukraine’s territorial integrity, the safety of nuclear power plants, the free flow of agricultural exports, and the necessity of prisoner exchanges. Notably absent from the summit were Russia and China, whose close and ongoing cooperation amid the war has led to growing criticism from the U.S., Europe, Japan, and now from Zelensky himself, raising doubts about the feasibility of a lasting peace in Ukraine.

In Foreign Affairs, the director of the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center, Alexander Gabuev, described why China was absent from the Swiss peace summit and why China is “sabotaging” Ukraine:

Xi, it seems, will not abandon his troublesome Russian partner or even pay lip service to aiding Kyiv. Instead, China has chosen a more ambitious, but also riskier, approach. It will continue to help Moscow and sabotage Western-led peace proposals. It hopes to then swoop in and use its leverage over Russia to bring both parties to the table in an attempt to broker a lasting agreement.

This gambit is unlikely to work. Neither Russia nor Ukraine appears anywhere close to being ready for serious peace talks—at least for now. Kyiv and its partners do not trust China to operate in good faith. And Beijing has very little experience in pulling off the kind of major, international negotiations it wants to spearhead here.

But these obstacles are unlikely to sway Xi. He has little to lose if the war in Ukraine goes on. China will therefore continue to be a stick-in-the-mud: indirectly helping Russia, derailing Kyiv-led diplomatic initiatives, and pretending to engage in diplomacy instead of genuinely trying to work with other parties to find a solution.

[…] China expects that the peace summit will fail. It believes the meeting will do nothing to advance peace or to rally the world behind Ukraine’s maximalist demands. That failure may give Beijing a shot to make itself a central player in diplomatic efforts, or at least pretend to be one—perhaps by partnering with friendly countries that have a proven track record in Ukraine-related talks. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, for example, have facilitated discreet talks on prisoner swaps. Turkey was instrumental in reopening the Black Sea to grain shipments. All three states are on good terms with Beijing. [Source]

Other analysts echoed Gabuev’s diagnosis. Ryan Hass, director of the Brookings Institution’s China Center, wrote: “Beijing’s view is that the conflict is far from a mutually hurting stalemate and thus isn’t yet ripe for resolution. They don’t view [the] Swiss as neutral. And they won’t get drawn into a negotiation that Moscow refuses to join.” Alicja Bachulska, a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told Nikkei Asia that Beijing’s absence is a reminder that “China does not want to see Ukraine winning the war on its own terms, because this would translate, in Beijing’s eyes, into a strategic gain for Washington.” Conditioning Chinese participation on Russia’s involvement sends “a clear signal that Beijing supports Moscow’s outlook on the conflict and its potential resolution,” Bachulska added.

Foreign ministers and envoys from India, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Thailand, Indonesia, and the United Arab Emirates attended the summit but did not sign the joint communiqué. Citing Beijing-based diplomats, Reuters recently revealed that the Chinese government told developing nations that the Swiss summit would prolong the war and tried to enlist them into joining China’s own peace plan issued with Brazil last month. Brazil attended the Swiss summit only as an observer and did not sign the joint communiqué.

These diverging efforts by the Chinese government have frustrated Zelensky to such an extent that during his surprise appearance at the Shangri-La Dialogue earlier this month, he openly criticized China. “Using Chinese influence, using Chinese diplomats, Russia is doing everything to disrupt the summit. Regrettably, such a big, independent country as China has become an instrument in Putin’s hands,” Zelensky said, adding, “Unfortunately Ukraine does not have any powerful connections with China because China does not want it.” In a conversation with The Diplomat columnist Mercy Kuo, Yurii Poita, European China Policy Fellow at MERICS and head of the Asia-Pacific Section at Center for Army, Conversion, and Disarmament Studies (CACDS) in Kyiv, described the motivations behind Zelensky’s rare, but vocal, critiques of China:

President Zelenskyy clearly stated what is really happening on the ground: China not only does not play the constructive role that both Ukraine and many countries of the world expected from it, but it plays a dangerous destructive role, hiding behind declarative peace rhetoric.

For two years, Kyiv spoke to China with great care and respect and made tremendous efforts to explain to Beijing the true causes of the war and its consequences. However, China almost completely closed the channels of communication with Kyiv, and only worsened its position regarding the war.

[…] Since the Shangri-La Dialogue is an international platform, although mostly focused on Indo-Pacific security, Zelenskyy’s target audience was the political leadership of both the countries of the world and the countries of the region.

[…] As for China, the problem is that many countries of the world consider China a neutral country, because they are not aware of the scope and threats of the Russian-Chinese partnership for security both in Europe and in the Indo-Pacific region. Therefore, it was important for Zelenskyy to explain to world leaders China’s real contribution to the Russian-Ukrainian war, to force them to look at Beijing’s actions from the point of view of threats. [Source]

Western leaders have also dialed up their open criticism of China’s support for Russia’s war. This week, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told the BBC that Beijing has been “sharing a lot of technologies, [like] micro-electronics, which are key for Russia to build missiles, weapons they use against Ukraine,” and he added that “at some stage, we should consider some kind of economic cost if China doesn’t change their behaviour.” Similar critiques were made last week at the G7 summit, where G7 leaders agreed to loan Ukraine $50 billion backed by the profits earned on roughly $300 billion in frozen Russian assets that are held in E.U. countries. Nectar Gan from CNN highlighted the G7 joint statement accusing China of “enabling” Russia’s war against Ukraine:

“China’s ongoing support for Russia’s defense industrial base is enabling Russia to maintain its illegal war in Ukraine and has significant and broad-based security implications,” the G7 leaders said in the communique Friday.

“We call on China to cease the transfer of dual-use materials, including weapons components and equipment, that are inputs for Russia’s defense sector.”

The leaders also threatened further actions, including sanctions, to punish Chinese entities that they say are helping Russia circumvent Western embargoes.

“We will continue taking measures against actors in China and third countries that materially support Russia’s war machine, including financial institutions, consistent with our legal systems, and other entities in China that facilitate Russia’s acquisition of items for its defense industrial base,” the joint statement said, vowing to impose “restrictive measures to prevent abuse and restrict access to our financial systems.” [Source]

Meanwhile, as reported last week by the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, in Sub-Saharan Africa, China has been facilitating Russian messaging against Ukraine:

Contributing to the ongoing information war launched by Russia around its invasion of Ukraine, China disseminates and amplifies Russian narratives to its global audience, prevalent with narratives opposing NATO and disinformation incriminating the United States. To develop discourse power and counter Western media in Sub-Saharan Africa, China has partnered with Russia through bilateral agreements and BRICS initiatives. Chinese content-sharing agreements and platforms gave African news media access to source Chinese reporting featuring pro-Russian narratives, especially in distorting the coverage of Ukraine. China has cultivated and amplified aligned local voices to show African endorsement of Chinese policies and by extension Russian disinformation. Chinese media infrastructure has allowed RT to evade EU sanctions, facilitating the uninterrupted broadcast of Russian propaganda to Sub-Saharan Africans. To spread narratives of Ukraine on social media, China has localized its messaging in Sub-Saharan Africa. As Chinese and Russian media cooperation progresses and evolves, the consolidation of their capabilities, especially through content-sharing platforms, may further erode accountable reporting and weaken solidarity for Ukraine in global majority countries. [Source]


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