Hong Kong — A long-awaited phone chat on Wednesday between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was met with cautious optimism in Washington and parts of Europe for its potential to enhance communication toward resolving Russia’s deadly war in Ukraine.
It also represents China’s most tangible action to date in assuming the role of mediator that it has referred to for months.
However, the hour-long talk believed to be the first between the two presidents in the fourteen months since Russia invaded Ukraine, comes with few concrete recommendations for how China may assist in bridging the catastrophic, war-torn rift between the two countries.
Analysts believe the timing – when Beijing is mainly focused on developing relationships with Europe amid deteriorating relations with the US – also implies that there are more drivers in China’s calculus than mere peace.
Connections have been tense since the commencement of the war. European leaders have watched in dismay as Beijing declined to denounce the invasion, instead strengthening its economic and political connections with Moscow, including backing the Kremlin in blaming NATO for it igniting the crisis.
Beijing’s efforts to repair those relations hit a snag earlier this week when China’s top diplomat in Paris suggested in a televised interview that former Soviet states have no legal status under international law, seen as a potential nod to Putin’s view that Ukraine should be part of Russia.
“It’s difficult to separate the timing of the Xi-Zelensky call from those events,” said Brain Hart, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies China Power Project in Washington.
“Xi presumably scheduled the call to assuage European anxieties, but it remains to be seen whether the call will benefit Beijing much… Higher-ups in Beijing retracted the ambassador’s words, but the damage had been done, setting back Beijing’s efforts to smooth over deteriorating relations with most of Europe,” he continued.
After the call, Zelensky, who had expressed interest in speaking with Xi for months, addressed hopes for China’s role in peace, characterizing it as an “opportunity to use China’s political influence to restore the strength of the principles and rules on which peace should be based.”
As for Xi, he promised that China “would not sit idly by” and announced plans to send a special envoy to advance communication “with all parties” toward peace talks, according to a Chinese readout of the call. This action is similar to what Beijing has done in other regional conflicts like Afghanistan and Syria.
But what China could or expects to do is unclear, since Beijing has revealed little solid information beyond the nomination of envoy Li Hui, a former Chinese ambassador to Russia.
Meanwhile, the war continues, with Russia refusing to relinquish unlawfully gained areas and Ukraine vowing to fight until its legitimate borders are restored.
“The Chinese also have realistic expectations about what they can achieve because no one believes that either Russia or Ukraine is ready to sit down and talk at this time,” said Yun Sun, head of the China Program at the Stimson Center in Washington.
Instead, China’s decision to summon Zelensky now may be a ploy to leverage French support for its mediation position following French President Emmanuel Macron’s recent visit to China, as well as to get any benefits from Europe, she noted.
“Because the war is unlikely to end soon, China should seize the opportunity to grow its diplomatic clout and influence, (and) develop ties with Europe… Any mediation is not guaranteed to succeed, but attempting earns China many points, which is not trivial,” she said.
China appears to be ready to bolster these optics, with the Foreign Ministry confirming the call at a rare, invite-only special press event in Beijing Wednesday evening.
Who is a neutral player?
However, another set of optics, Beijing’s tight relationship with Moscow, has already instilled in the West considerable cynicism about China’s prospective position as a mediator.
Despite a years-long strategic alliance between their countries, Xi has asserted China’s neutrality and spoken with Putin five times, including twice in person, without picking up the phone to call Zelensky.
China has also continued to conduct military exercises alongside Russian soldiers, with its defense minister visiting Moscow earlier this month and hailing the two countries “increasingly consolidated” trust.
A loosely phrased “political settlement” to the war announced by China on the first anniversary of the invasion – and raised by Xi to Zelensky on Wednesday – has been largely perceived as being more favorable to Russia than Ukraine in the West and Kyiv. It calls for a cease-fire but makes no mention of Moscow withdrawing its soldiers from Ukrainian territory first.
This track record and Xi and Putin’s tight personal ties, which were highlighted during the Chinese leader’s three-day visit to Moscow last month, are likely to damage Xi’s credibility in Zelensky’s eyes, observers believe.
But this connection has also been the cause of several leaders’ expressed optimism that Xi will use his power to persuade Russia to abide by international law, including Zelensky and Macron.
When it comes to intervening, observers believe China could shift its “political settlement” stance to one that is more acceptable to Ukraine. It may also try to press for progress by siding with countries outside the Western alliance who have called for peace negotiations, such as Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who was in Beijing earlier this month.
At the same time, the fundamental importance of the Russia relationship for China may imply that there are some buttons that Beijing will be careful not to hit, diminishing the possibility of meaningful mediation.
According to Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute in London, “There is no indication that Xi is trying to get Putin or Russia to make concessions of any sort, and the Chinese readout (of the call) does not include anything concrete that can start a peace process.”
“Given that the war is an existential one for Ukraine, it cannot find any foreign mediation as credible if the mediating party is supportive of the stance of Russia, which started the invasion,” he continued.