Chinese President Xi Jinping will visit Russia next week, both countries have confirmed, in an apparent show of support for Russian President Vladimir Putin, even as Beijing continues to tout its plan for ending the war in Ukraine.
Mr. Xi is riding a diplomatic high after his government brokered a deal between archrivals Saudi Arabia and Iran, which has been hailed by Chinese state media as proof the country can play peacemaker, unlike the United States, which Beijing blames for prolonging the war.
But while that deal won plaudits globally, Mr. Xi may face a tougher challenge bringing Moscow and Kyiv to the table – if that is indeed what he desires. The 12-point proposal for Ukraine unveiled last month received a tepid reaction from both sides and was widely criticized by Western governments for failing to call on Russia to withdraw from the country.
“Saudi Arabia and Iran actually want to talk and improve relations, while Russia and Ukraine don’t, at least for now,” said Yun Sun, director of the China Program at the Washington-based Stimson Center.
Beijing’s proposal was published as Mr. Xi’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, was in Moscow, a visit framed by the Kremlin as a show of support from its closest ally. For Mr. Xi’s trip to avoid being seen the same way, he may seek to balance it with a video call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, according to the Wall Street Journal.
If that call does happen, it will be the first time the two leaders have spoken since the war began. Mr. Xi has spoken with Mr. Putin multiple times in the past year, both in person and virtually.
Wang Wenbin, a Chinese Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman, said Mr. Xi’s visit, scheduled for March 20-22, would “further deepen bilateral trust” and see the two leaders “exchange opinions on major international and regional issues.” He did not confirm any plans for a call with Mr. Zelensky.
In a separate statement, the Kremlin said the two sides would sign “important bilateral documents” and focus on “deepening Russian-Chinese co-operation in the international arena.”
Chinese President Xi Jinping will visit Russia on March 20, officials from both countries said on March 17, weighing into the Ukraine conflict just as relations between Moscow and Washington hit a new low.
In a rare phone conversation with his Ukrainian counterpart Thursday, China’s Foreign Minister said Beijing is concerned about the conflict spinning out of control and urged talks on a political solution with Moscow.
Qin Gang told Dmytro Kuleba that China has “always upheld an objective and fair stance on the issue, has committed itself to promoting peace and advancing negotiations and calls on the international community to create conditions for peace talks,” according to a Chinese readout.
Mr. Kuleba later tweeted that he and Mr. Qin “discussed the significance of the principle of territorial integrity.” He said he underscored Kyiv’s stand on “ending the aggression and restoring just peace in Ukraine,” which calls for an immediate retreat by Russia and the return of all territory seized.
China has strong economic ties to both Russia and Ukraine, and early in the war many in the West – particularly in Europe – hoped Beijing could play a role in ending the conflict. But instead of pressuring the Kremlin, China appeared to double down on its “no limits” partnership with Russia, announced by Mr. Xi and Mr. Putin weeks before the war, and increased trade as Western sanctions started to bite.
Today, few see Beijing as a neutral party. After China’s 12-point proposal was unveiled last month, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said it was “not a peace plan.”
“China has taken sides by signing an unlimited friendship [agreement] right before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine started,” she said. In a statement, her office said Beijing’s proposal “doesn’t take into account who is the aggressor and who is the victim of an illegal, unjustified war of aggression.”
Washington has repeatedly accused China of seeking to go further in its support of Russia by providing weapons. While Beijing has vehemently denied this and the U.S. has not claimed that any transfers have taken place, Politico reported this week on customs data that shows Chinese companies providing assault rifles, drone parts and body armour to Russia.
But though Beijing has little credibility in the West, a show of diplomacy could play well in other parts of the world.
This week, Mr. Xi gave a video address to leaders from around the world, including those of Russia, South Africa, Venezuela and Togo. In it he unveiled the “global civilization initiative,” a set of guidelines for a “new type of international relations.”
“Chinese-style modernization does not follow the old path of colonial plunder, nor the crooked path of hegemony after a strong country, but the right path of peaceful development in the world,” he said.
The world does not need a “new Cold War,” he added, and China is a “force for world peace and justice.”
Ken Jimbo, a security expert at Tokyo’s Keio University, said China’s messaging on such topics is far more attractive to the so-called “Global South” than initiatives such as the U.S.-led Summit for Democracy, which draws lines between countries based on their political systems.
With files from Reuters and the Associated Press