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Xi-Zelensky call ushers in new phase of mediation, Chinese experts say
Exclusive interviews with top Chinese IR scholars
Beijing Channel exclusively interviewed 5 Chinese experts on the heel of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s phone call with his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky. The experts assess the call’s timing, content, the potential impact on the course of the Russian-Ukraine conflict, and China’s relationship with the West.
Here are some of the key takes by the interviewed experts, including Cui Hongjian, Da Wei, Zhao Chen, Victor Gao, and Li Chen.
★ The call marks a new phase of Chinese involvement in the political settlement of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict.
★ The call comes after a series of diplomatic engagements with all parties of the conflict, and as a stalemate occurs on the battleground, creating a new impetus for a political settlement of the conflict.
★ The call further demonstrates China’s balanced position in the conflict and reflects China’s unique advantage in the ability to be able to speak to both sides of the conflict.
★ Judging by topics addressed in the call, the synchronizing wavelength of the conversation, and the reactions from both sides, the call should be considered a success.
★The call will likely reassure Europe and prevent the crisis from further damaging China-European ties.
▲CUI Hongjian Director, Center for European Studies, CIIS
[ In order to help politically solve the conflict, China should strengthen Sino-European cooperation.]
Regarding the timing, I think there are two aspects to consider.
One is that China is showing its willingness to help create a political solution to the Ukrainian crisis. Since last year, from Schulz to Michel, then from Putin to Macron to von der Leyen, we have had contact with European leaders to understand their ideas, then we presented our position on paper and had a consultation with Russia. So, in fact, apart from the United States, we have had high-level contact with all parties involved in the Ukrainian crisis.
Regarding Ukraine, there have been expectations from the West, especially European countries, where they hope China would on one hand exert influence on Russia, and on the other, establish contact with Ukraine directly.
When China’s Wang Yi and Qin Gang contacted the Ukrainian Foreign Minister before this call, they were actually creating conditions for the subsequent leaders' calls. From China’s perspective, it has established a platform, a direction, and a certain pace for this call.
Another aspect is the current situation in the Ukrainian crisis. Currently, the situation in Ukraine is halted at a stalemate. The longer the stalemate continues, the stronger the willingness of all parties, including Russia and Ukraine, to want to ease the situation and move towards a ceasefire.
I think the timing is good in terms of the conflict itself. China received a positive response from the international community when it brokered the Saudi-Iran Deal, some countries would then expect that China might also be more vocal and active about Ukraine. In fact, China has always been pushing for a political solution to the Ukrainian crisis, which is consistent with the image it wants to portray, that China is an active peacebuilder. I think this will help boost the positive perception of China in the international community.
Furthermore, we can see that the West, including the United States, is now hesitating to provide more military assistance to Ukraine, and there are some problems with their follow-up actions. Currently, the United States is also concerned about how much the Ukrainian issue might affect its domestic politics, so I think the timing of the call is good because the West's momentum to provide aid to Ukraine and impose sanctions on Russia may slow down.
As for the call itself, I think proceeded in accordance with China’s agenda. For example, it is China’s principle to engage with almost all countries, especially important ones, within the framework of bilateral relations. The statements made by both sides emphasized the promotion of bilateral relations because only a stable and good bilateral relationship can create a foundation for discussing issues such as the Ukraine crisis.
Considering the reaction from the Ukrainian side, including President Zelensky himself, some of his officials, and their spokesperson, I think the overall impression is that both sides were on the same wavelength during the call. To be honest, I was a little concerned before about the communication between China and Ukraine, fearing that they may not be on the same page, but based on the content of this call, it seems that both sides were able to successfully communicate and discuss the issue at hand.
Secondly, I think the responses from Ukraine are also interesting. As you can see from President Zelensky's initial reaction, he emphasized that this was a long and constructive conversation. On one hand, he may be emphasizing that the talk had been productive, and on the other hand, Ukraine may want to convey to Russia that they have had a discussion with China, and such discussions may continue.
Overall, based on the topic set, the wavelength of the conversation, and the reactions from both sides, I think this call was very successful.
As for the course of the conflict after the call, I think to some extent, this conversation between the top leaders of the two countries marks the completion of the first phase of China’s participation in pushing for a political resolution to the Ukrainian issue through top-level diplomacy.
I think the foreign media will be on the one hand watching for further interaction at the presidential level, and on the other hand, attention may shift to the working level, for example, how the Chinese envoy will start meditating or engaging in shuttle diplomacy.
Looking ahead, two developments may arise regarding the Ukraine crisis. One direction is that the United States is constantly seeking assistance from NATO and entreating other countries, including European countries, Japan, etc., to continue imposing sanctions on Russia. The other direction is that China, along with some European countries and the parties involved, is pushing for progress in negotiations and diplomacy.
I think that this conversation largely alleviates Europe's anxiety and concerns. They used to have two main concerns. The first is that they were worried that China and Russia being too close together would objectively threaten Europe's interests. If China kept standing with Russia, Europe would gradually see China as its opponent or even its enemy. The second concern was that they were worried that China is insincere or overstating its position on this issue. For example, they may think that China is just paying lip service without taking action.
Therefore, in response to these concerns, I believe that China’s words and actions need to match. Beijing needs to set achievable goals and avoid overstatements. If we sound too ambitious, but our actions don't keep up, some European countries may still think that their worries are justified.
Another thing that I think we need to do in order to help politically solve this problem is to strengthen Sino-European cooperation. Currently, Europe's identity is quite delicate, as some countries tightly align themselves with the United States and view Russia as a long-term opponent, while other countries hope that the crisis will not continue at the current pace. From their own perspectives, they believe that the losses will only increase the longer the conflict continues. Therefore, we need to coordinate with moderates in Europe to promote negotiations. At the same time, China should not be too aggressive towards Europe's hardliners, not push them toward the United States.
▲DA Wei, Director, CISS
[China’s conversation with Ukraine is undoubtedly more challenging than speaking with Russia. Currently, China is striving to break down camp barriers and has been able to meet and communicate with both leaders of the conflict. ]
This dialogue between China and Ukraine comes after China has already had high-level interactions with many countries, including Russia, France, Germany, and the EU, among others. After launching our Global Security Initiative, this is a relatively appropriate time to have a dialogue with Ukraine, which is more practically significant.
After the Russia-Ukraine conflict broke out, the West divided the world into different camps, making dialogue difficult. China’s conversation with Ukraine is undoubtedly more challenging than speaking with Russia. Currently, China is striving to break down camp barriers and has been able to meet and communicate with both leaders of the conflict. Additionally, the capability of having serious discussions with Ukraine and Europe reflects China's unique advantage of being above any camps.
Among the major powers, only China has managed to communicate and engage both conflict parties in dialogue. China is the only country among the P5 nations that can positively persuade both sides to negotiate peacefully. However, this process takes time, mainly due to the polarization of the West.
I think the conversation itself is a natural development in the China-Ukraine relationship. The two leaders started by discussing bilateral relations, indicating that China and Ukraine have a long-standing friendly relationship and the need to develop bilateral relations. This led to discussions about the Russia-Ukraine conflict. The fact that China will send a special representative to conduct shuttle visits means that China may start to intervene more vigorously in the peace process. I think this is a significant development.
I don’t think there should be too much to expect in the short term of the conflict. There are inherent issues in the Russia-Ukraine conflict, and neither side's demands have been met. Therefore, I think the situation may worsen in the short term. However, this conversation means that China can participate more effectively, actively, and constructively in the Russia-Ukraine conflict's mediation and promotion of negotiations, mainly by providing political conditions and creating possibilities for future ceasefires and negotiations. I don't think there will be a ceasefire before the winter of 2023, and there may be more intense conflicts, but the dialogue can pave the way for the future de-escalation of the conflict.
In the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, Europe has been directly impacted. Therefore, in the eyes of many European countries, if you do not support Ukraine, you are opposing them. If you do not fully stand on Ukraine's side, you are against the Western countries. However, this time, I think China has shown through practical actions that it maintains a relatively fair position between Russia and Ukraine. In the past, we have said that we don't take sides, but if you do not talk to Ukraine, they will think that you are supporting Russia. Now, we are telling them through our actions. I think this is good news for the relationship between China and Europe. European countries may understand that China is indeed promoting peace talks between the two countries. It may also be beneficial for China and the United States, but it may not be as obvious.
▲ZHAO Chen, Fellow, Institute of European Studies, CASS
[ It is very important that China sends a special envoy to visit Ukraine, communicate with various sectors in this country, understand their true thoughts, and finally explore a peaceful settlement of the Ukraine crisis in the future. ]
I don't think it was unexpected timing, as China had already put forward a general policy for dialogue and negotiation on the Ukraine crisis at the end of February, as well as its 12-point position paper on a political settlement of the Ukraine crisis. As a result, it was highly probable that China would contact both Russia and Ukraine. There were also high expectations from the European side for President Xi and President Zelensky to have a phone call on the Ukraine crisis following President Xi Jinping's visit to Russia in March.
Overall, I think Xi-Zelensky call reaffirmed China's basic stance on the Ukrainian crisis, which is to uphold the international system centered on the United Nations while respecting international law and the principle established after World War II, that is the inviolability of territorial integrity and sovereignty. This is a reaffirmation of China’s political position.
Secondly, I think it is very important that China sends a special envoy to visit Ukraine, communicate with various sectors in this country, understand their true thoughts, and finally explore a peaceful settlement of the Ukraine crisis in the future. This is a crucial step in the practical operation of how to mediate the Ukraine crisis politically. If China doesn’t send an envoy to Ukraine and listen to its concerns, that’s not something the West and Ukraine like to see. By visiting both Russia and Ukraine, the envoy can showcase China’s balanced approach. This shows that China is beginning to implement its political statements into practical actions in the Ukraine crisis.
Though the call is positive for China-Europe relations, the Ukraine crisis has also had spill-over effects and negative impacts on China-Europe relations. Many EU countries have started to prioritize security concerns over economic issues.
This call between President Xi and Zelensky was actually a reassuring message to Europe, demonstrating our firm stance on promoting peace talks and indicating that China truly maintains a balanced position on the Ukraine crisis. China not only meets Putin but also has direct contact with the other side of the crisis, Ukraine. This has actually dispelled many misunderstandings about China in Europe.
▲Victor Gao, Vice President, CCG
[Yesterday's phone call indicates that China has taken a substantial step towards promoting a peaceful resolution to the conflict.]
Yesterday's one-hour phone call between President Xi and President Zelensky is of significant importance. It should be noted that China and Ukraine have maintained close contact since the outbreak of the Ukrainian conflict over a year ago, which is completely different from what the West says.
Moreover, as far as I know, China and Ukraine have been in close contact recently, discussing various issues related to the ongoing crisis. Both sides have been actively discussing a potential meeting between the two leaders, including the location and setting. It's worth noting that the phone call was just a part of a series of recent, in-depth contacts between the two sides.
It is still possible that the leaders of China and Ukraine will hold face-to-face summits in the future at an appropriate time and location, whether it be in China, Ukraine, or a third country.
The call firstly signifies that China is sincere and willing to mediate the Ukrainian crisis to find a peaceful solution. Additionally, it suggests that China is willing to remain neutral between Russia and Ukraine, promote a ceasefire between the two sides, determine a temporary control line, and finally initiate negotiations for each side to express their territorial demands. This will help to resolve the conflict peacefully.
The call indicates that China has taken a substantial step toward promoting a peaceful resolution to the conflict. It is also encouraging that President Zelensky does not oppose China's position and is willing to actively discuss it with China, which starkly contrasts the rumors spread by some Western countries.
I also noticed that President Xi proposed that China dispatch a special envoy to assist with resolving the Ukrainian crisis. This envoy will likely visit Ukraine and other relevant countries, such as Russia, NATO member states, and maybe even the United States.
From this perspective, I think that the conversation between President Xi Jinping and Ukrainian President Zelensky last night demonstrated China's fundamental stance on the Ukraine crisis. China is committed to pursuing peace and believes in resolving the crisis through diplomatic negotiations. This approach can benefit the Russian and Ukrainian people and contribute to the achievement of genuine peace in Ukraine and neighboring regions.
Another crucial point is that President Xi firmly emphasized is that it’s essential to oppose the outbreak of nuclear war. As a nuclear-armed country, China has conducted an in-depth analysis of the threat of nuclear war and deeply understands the importance of peace. Therefore, China stands firm in opposing any escalation of the war that might develop into a nuclear conflict. This could be considered China's greatest contribution to resolving the crisis in Ukraine in a peaceful way.
▲ LI Chen, Associate Professor, Director, Center for International Security and Strategy, School of International Studies at Renmin University of China
[China is advantageous as it can provide a channel for shuttle diplomacy.]
There are three presets for the conversation to take place at this time.
Initially, it is important to note that the current situation on the battlefield has significantly changed since the onset of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict over a year ago. Prior to this, all parties held unrealistic expectations. Some anticipated a “swift victory for the Russian army” at the beginning. Conversely, after the Russian army faced setbacks in the Kharkiv and Kherson regions last year, there were expectations of a “Russian defeat”. These unrealistic expectations made the likelihood of seeking peace negligible.
However, since the beginning of this year, it has become increasingly evident that a stalemate has developed between Russia and Ukraine on the battlefield, leading all parties to acknowledge the reality of a war deadlock.
Additionally, there is a noticeable change in how the Western world views China, according to foreign experts and scholars, particularly those from the United States. At first, the West had high hopes for China, but their impression turned sour when China failed to meet its expectations. However, since the end of last year, European countries have started to shift away from their negative stance and emphasized the importance of cooperating with China, while adjusting their perception of the country.
Lastly, China has made ample diplomatic preparations. The March summit between China and Russia can be seen as a precursor to the conversation between China and Ukraine. Previously, Chinese and Russian leaders had already held a face-to-face meeting, so there was no resistance for China when engaging with Ukraine. Furthermore, China has made sufficient preparations in terms of its stance and policies on the Russia-Ukraine conflict. It can be said that the conversation between the Chinese and Ukrainian leaders at this time is a natural outcome.
While Western countries have promised significant military assistance to Ukraine, the primary purpose of this aid is to compensate for the losses and expenditures that Ukraine incurred in the early stages of the war. Even if this military aid arrives quickly, it will not be sufficient to give Ukraine a clear military advantage. Reports in the Western media about Ukraine's spring counteroffensive are also somewhat overstated. Even if Ukraine is able to conduct limited counterattacks in certain areas, it will not curtail its negotiating, engagement, and diplomatic efforts with all parties involved.
The readouts mentioned that China would send a special envoy to visit Ukraine and other countries to conduct in-depth communications with all parties on the political settlement of the Ukraine crisis. I firmly believe that this action holds great significance. Based on the historical experience of major powers mediating regional conflicts, it is crucial to establish reliable and effective communication channels and have designated individuals shuttling between both parties regularly. In my view, the United States and European countries lack the capacity to perform such duties. Therefore, China is advantageous as it can provide a channel for shuttle diplomacy.
In recent times, several Chinese diplomats have emphasized the need to compartmentalize the China-Europe relationship from the Ukrainian crisis. This assertion is valid from China's point of view. However, from the perspective of European countries, the priority remains the impact of the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Additionally, China's limited previous interactions with Ukraine have affected the way European countries view China. Concerning the Russia-Ukraine conflict, their perceived distance between China and Russia is much smaller than reality.
Looking at China-Europe relations, it can be seen that this phone conversation between China and Ukraine is a positive development that reinforces the potential for high-level communication between the two countries. The press release o also underscores China's firm stance on important principles such as respecting the territorial sovereignty of all parties, promoting mutual respect between China and Ukraine, and opposing nuclear escalation. These positions were previously discussed during the meeting with the French president. However, this is the first time these positions have been explicitly communicated to the Ukrainian president in the aftermath of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, which marks a significant step forward.
Naturally, the current emphasis is on putting into action the ideas that were discussed, as this is crucial for ensuring the conversation's ongoing efficacy. China should not anticipate any significant change in the attitudes or stances of other parties towards China, merely based on the discussion that took place between the Chinese and Ukrainian leaders. These parties will remain apprehensive about the actual implementation of any proposals that were put forth.
Beijing Channel interns JIN Sirui, LIAO Hongqing, HAN Yuxi, and LUO Zhiyu contributed to the translation.
Disclaimer: The views expressed here does not necessarily reflect the positions of the Chinese government, Xinhua News Agency, or Beijing Channel.