Sun, 25 Sep 2022

Can Ukraine's China Outreach Actually Work?

RFE
10 Aug 2022, 04:15 GMT+10

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has been unable to secure a direct line with China's Xi Jinping since Russia invaded his country in February.

But that has not stopped Zelenskiy from calling on the Chinese president to use Beijing's political and economic influence over Moscow to help end the six-month war in Ukraine.

'I would like to talk directly. I had one conversation with Xi Jinping [a] year ago,' Zelenskiy told the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post on August 4. 'Since the beginning of the large-scale aggression on February 24, we have asked officially for a conversation, but we [haven't had] any conversation with China even though I believe that would be helpful.'

China has proven to be Russia's most important partner since its invasion of Ukraine, with Beijing refusing to condemn Moscow's actions, including alleged war crimes. Beijing has also echoed the Kremlin's narrative that the war is a 'special military operation' that was provoked by unchecked NATO expansion.

Despite this, Zelenskiy said he still believes that China could use its clout with Russia to push for a negotiated end to the war. 'It's a very powerful state. It's a powerful economy.... So [it] can politically, economically influence Russia,' he said. 'And China is [also a] permanent member of the UN Security Council.'

Zelenskiy's comments are part of a diplomatic strategy -- adopted by Kyiv since the beginning of the war -- that has so far failed to yield results. Analysts say that it highlights a disconnect between how the Ukrainian government sees China and the increasingly negative views within Ukraine's policy-expert community.

A TV screen shows news about Russia's invasion of Ukraine at a shopping mall in Hangzhou, in eastern China, on February 25.

'If Zelenskiy is reaching out via Chinese media, then it means that the diplomatic channels are likely not working and perhaps could even be worse than how they [appear],' Yuriy Poita of the Kyiv-based Center for Army, Conversion, and Disarmament Studies told RFE/RL. 'The government's relations with Beijing are likely frozen and skepticism is rising in the [Ukrainian] expert community, where China is now mostly seen as offering tacit consent and even support for Russia's war.'

China And The Ukraine War

Throughout the war, China has become a potent outlet for Russian disinformation and propaganda, with Beijing officials and state media adopting Moscow's justification for the invasion and often parroting false claims about events while ignoring commentary from Kyiv.

One of the few exceptions was an April 30 interview by the Chinese state news agency Xinhua with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba. During the interview, Kuleba was given space to criticize Russia and urge China to play a larger role in bringing Moscow to the negotiating table by warning of the international fallout from continuing the war. 'This war is not in line with China's interests. The global food crisis and economic problems...will pose a serious threat to the Chinese economy,' he said.

Kuleba has held talks with his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, over the course of the war and Xi has expressed concern over the growing human toll of the fighting. But Beijing has stopped short of criticizing Moscow and stayed consistent with its line that NATO -- and the United States in particular -- is to blame for provoking Russia into attacking its neighbor.

In early February, Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin declared a 'no limits' partnership between their two countries. While Beijing has carefully calibrated its outward support during the conflict, it has also supplied a financial lifeline to Russia through continued trade and provided diplomatic cover for Moscow at international bodies like the United Nations.

Ukraine's Foreign Ministry did not reply to RFE/RL's request for comments about Kyiv's China outreach.

Prior to the war, Ukraine looked to build strong economic ties with Beijing as it reoriented its economy away from Russia and looked to balance what it saw as an overreliance on the West for support. In 2013, Xi and then-President Viktor Yanukovych signed an agreement under which China would protect Ukraine in the event of a nuclear attack, a deal that has received new scrutiny following Russia's invasion.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych (left) and Chinese President Xi Jinping sign agreements in Beijing during a December 2013 visit.

Ties were strained in 2021 when Ukraine blocked Chinese investors from acquiring the Ukrainian aerospace company Motor Sich, reportedly due to lobbying from Washington, which wanted to block China from acquiring valuable military technologies from the Ukrainian firm.

An RFE/RL investigation that same year also found that Ukraine bowed to Chinese pressure to remove its name from an international statement about human rights abuses against Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in China's western Xinjiang region. Beijing had threatened to limit trade and withhold access to COVID-19 vaccines from Kyiv.

Poita, the Ukrainian analyst, says that despite Beijing's unwillingness so far to break from Moscow, some officials in Kyiv still believe that Ukraine's own China links could bear fruit. 'Even with all the bilateral documents between Ukraine and China, it looks like this partnership has collapsed,' Poita said. 'Ukraine's best hope now is just that China does not provide military or other direct assistance to Russia.'

Beijing And Moscow's Bonds

The war in Ukraine has also shifted how Beijing and Moscow see each other and the West, according to Bonny Lin and Jude Blanchette of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. In a recent article published in Foreign Affairs magazine, they argued that China could adopt a more aggressive foreign policy as a result of events in Ukraine.

'A final component of China's foreign-policy rethink concerns military force. Beijing believes that the West is incapable of understanding or sympathizing with what it views as legitimate Russian security concerns,' Lin and Blanchette wrote. 'There is no reason for China to assume that the United States and its allies will treat China's concerns any differently. Because diplomacy is not effective, China may need to use force to demonstrate its resolve.'

China fired multiple missiles around Taiwan and began live-fire military exercises following an August 3 visit by U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi to the self-ruled island that Beijing claims as its own territory.

Chinese troops carry out military exercises off the coast of Taiwan on August 5.

In response to the growing tensions, the Kremlin offered strong support to China and what it called its right to hold drills off the coast of Taiwan. Moscow also blamed Washington for fueling the crisis.

Research by the German Marshall Fund's Alliance for Securing Democracy found that Pelosi's trip became the focus of Russian propaganda. During a 48-hour time frame coinciding with her visit, Taiwan overtook Ukraine and became the second-most mentioned country by Russian officials and state media on Twitter, trailing only Russia.

'[Russian propaganda] used Pelosi's trip to paint the United States as an aggressive and reckless power and they framed China as a victim that was justified in safeguarding its interests,' Joseph Bodnar, an analyst at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, told RFE/RL.

For Ukraine, the added tensions over Taiwan -- and between China and the United States -- point to a shrinking likelihood that Beijing is willing to use its influence to pressure Russia or take Ukrainian interests into consideration, Poita says.

'This growing competition means that Russia is too important for China to abandon for the time being,' he said. 'Perhaps it's time for Ukraine to have a broader discussion about China and destroy these illusions about it that still seem to exist.'

Copyright (c) 2018. RFE/RL, Inc. Republished with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Washington DC 20036

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