China shifts gear on Ukraine mediation

Xi swiftly followed through his conversation with Zelensky by appointing Li Hui, the deputy director-general of the department of Eurasia in the foreign ministry, to head China’s delegation for the settlement of the crisis in Ukraine. It is a smart decision. 

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Chinese President Xi Jinping, also general secretary of the Communist Party of China Central Committee and chairman of the Central Military Commission, visits national political advisors from the China National Democratic Construction Association and the All-China Federation of Industry and Commerce, who are attending the first session of the 14th National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), in Beijing, capital of China, March 6, 2023. Xi participated in their joint group meeting, and listened to their comments and suggestions. (Xinhua/Ju Peng)

For all the noise out of Washington, more and more countries are integrating their supply chains with China. Even the UK Foreign Secretary is making overtures to China, while Zelensky had a “long and meaningful” phone call with Xi Jinping on Wednesday. Washington’s position, sanctions and all, is disintegrating.

It is too early to predict what will emerge out of the speech on Tuesday at Mansion House by the UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly outlining the government’s position on China. The Global Times gave a cautious welcome

Clearly, Britain feels the urgency to dig its way out of the foxhole in which it found itself following the collapse of the Five Eyes attempt to ignite the Hong Kong protests. Britain cannot be far behind when the overall interests of European countries that enjoy deep mutually beneficial economic ties with the world’s second largest economy, are manifesting as reluctance to be dragged into becoming a vanguard that confronts China. (See my blog Who gains from a forever war in Ukraine?)  

That said, the timing is interesting. Cleverly’s speech came on the eve of the phone conversation between Chinese President Xi Jinping Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy (at the latter’s request.) From its unique perch on the transatlantic axis, Britain can sense tremors that impact the geopolitics of Indo-Pacific and the Ukraine conflict, which are in some ways inter-connected. Britain is positioning itself. 

Contents of conversations at top leadership level are never publicly divulged and the overwhelming mass lies submerged, like icebergs breaking off glaciers. But the Chinese readout of Xi-Zelensky conversation on Tuesday exudes positive tone. 

Xi hailed Sino-Ukrainian relations as “strategic partnership boosting development and revitalisation of the two countries” and went on make a flattering reference to Zelensky’s personal role. Xi also stated China’s consistent position that “Mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity is the political foundation of China-Ukraine relations.” Xi showed readiness in advancing the two countries’ strategic partnership with a long-term perspective. 

On Ukraine issue, Xi made three key points:  China’s “core stance is to facilitate talks for peace,” as enunciated in its position paper of February 24; Beijing intends to be proactive; and, dialogue and negotiation are the only way forward. 

The salience lies in Xi’s pointed reference to “rational thinking and voices on the rise” lately and that Kiev should “seize the opportunity and build up favourable conditions for the political settlement.” 

Xi kept his eyes on the ball and may have hinted that Zelensky can still win by a nose if only the risky, senseless idea of a “counteroffensive,” the germane seeds of which have been planted on his mind by Washington and London, is set side. 

Sensing Zelensky’s receptiveness, perhaps, Xi proposed that China will “make its efforts for early ceasefire and restoration of peace.” Specifically, “China will send the Special Representative of the Chinese Government on Eurasian Affairs to Ukraine and other countries to have in-depth communication with all parties on the political settlement of the Ukraine crisis.”

But no timeline was mentioned. Nonetheless, Xi has made a proactive move. What could be the calculus? At the obvious level, Xi has just had a series of interactions with European leaders who visited Beijing, which convinced him that “Ukraine crisis is evolving in complex ways with major impacts on the international landscape,” as he told Zelensky. 

Meanwhile, the leaked Pentagon documents exposed that disunity, distrust and divergences between the US, Europe and Ukraine are serious and keep worsening. On the other hand, Washington is not only the biggest obstacle to a ceasefire and peace talks but is nudging the western allies to rally behind its Indo-Pacific Strategy to contain China. 

This is where French President Emmanuel Macron’s extraordinary outburst in his interview with Politico, aboard Cotam Unité (France’s Air Force One) while returning from China after spending around six hours with Xi, becomes a defining moment.

To be sure, Macron’s stirring call that Europe should avoid “getting into a bloc versus bloc logic” resonated in Zhongnanhai — viz., Europe’s longing for strategic autonomy; Europe’s gnawing doubts and weariness of being a “vassal”; and Europe’s multiple challenges in social governance and its prioritisation of development and prosperity ultimately leaving it with no choice but to embrace Eurasia with greater connectivity, develop bilateral economic and trade relations with China, and rebuild ties with Russia. An avalanche of Chinese commentaries followed Macron’s remarks. (hereherehereherehere )

A clincher, however, would have been the recent leak of classified US and NATO documents on the Ukrainian military and Kiev’s much-anticipated “spring counteroffensive” (on which the US Department of Justice has since opened an investigation.) 

The documents exposed numerous disadvantages and shortcomings of Ukrainian military and gave way Washington’s top secret assessment that Ukrainian military is in dire straits after recent setbacks. Indeed, a pall of uncertainty and loss of self-esteem descended on Kiev, which is increasingly unsure about the steadfastness and reliability of Western support. 

Compounding these complexes were the leaked intelligence reports that the US “is also spying on Ukraine’s top military and political leaders, a reflection of Washington’s struggle to get a clear view of Ukraine’s fighting strategies.” (New York Times) Shades of Edward Snowden — this is how the US keeps its hegemony!  

Nonetheless, an editorial in Global Times  has written: “As time goes by, the international community has engaged in more cool reflection on this hot conflict. Especially, the willingness to negotiate among all parties is rising, and more rational voices are emerging in various European countries. In a sense, the window of opportunity for promoting a political solution to the Ukraine crisis has emerged.”

Xi swiftly followed through his conversation with Zelensky by appointing Li Hui, the deputy director-general of the department of Eurasia in the foreign ministry, to head China’s delegation for the settlement of the crisis in Ukraine. It is a smart decision. 

Li Hui, one of China’s ablest Eurasia hands, had previously served as the envoy to the Kremlin for an extraordinarily long period of ten years (2009-2019). He is very familiar with both the Ukrainian and Russian situation, understands the psychology of Slavic peoples and, of course, he speaks Russian. 

The appointment of a special representative signifies a serious  attempt to activate mediation functions to build bridges. But there are formidable challenges. Russia welcomes anything that could bring the end of the Ukraine conflict closer, but the bottom line will be that it still needs to achieve the aims of its special military operation  in Ukraine.

Also, Russia does not see readiness on the part of the West for a peaceful settlement. There is sound basis to it, as Washington relies entirely on military solution and total victory. 

China-brokered negotiations will be a huge blow to the American strategy in Ukraine and if it gains traction, that will put the US on the back foot in Indo-Pacific as well. In the short term, therefore, pressure may only build up on Zelensky to launch the “counteroffensive.” 

M. K. Bhadrakumar

M. K. Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat by profession. Roughly half of the 3 decades of his diplomatic career was devoted to assignments on the territories of the former Soviet Union and to Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan. Other overseas postings included South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, and Turkey. He writes mainly on Indian foreign policy and the affairs of the Middle East, Eurasia, Central Asia, South Asia and the Asia-Pacific.

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