‘Pro-Russian neutrality’: How Ukraine sees China’s emerging role
Russia’s ally signals a desire to broker peace, but few are convinced that Beijing has either power or pure motivations in Kyiv.
Kyiv, Ukraine – Volodymyr, a gaunt 44-year-old, recently returned from the front lines of eastern Ukraine and now needs psychological help for his post-traumatic stress disorder.
A contusion makes him slightly stutter.
He voraciously reads news from the cracked screen of his mobile phone – and has a firm opinion about recent headlines on the role of China, the only remaining heavy-weight partner in Russia’s corner, in the war.
“China prefers to stay away from this mess,” Volodymyr tells Al Jazeera, withholding his last name because he is still on active duty. “They’ll never openly support Russia.”
“Openly” is a keyword.
As the Russian-Ukrainian war approaches its 15th month, China still considers President Vladimir Putin an irreplaceable, “strategic” ally.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has remained the only global leader to maintain amicable ties with Putin – and has used China’s seat in the United Nations Security Council to repel diplomatic attacks on the Kremlin.
Xi has never denounced the war, rather calling it a “crisis”.
According to Ukrainian observers, Beijing’s position is full of ambivalence and omissions.
According to some, Xi sees the conflict through the prism of Taiwan, as China has long threatened to forcibly “unify” the self-governing island with the Communist mainland in ways that may be similar to how Russia “returned” Crimea.
While he now appears to be trying to add a peacekeeper’s feather to his cap, observers say he could in fact be attempting to freeze the war on Russia’s terms to let it replenish its arsenals, train more servicemen and switch its economy to wartime mode.
“China doesn’t need a pompous truce,” Sinologist Petro Shevchenko, of the Jilin University in the Chinese city of Changchun, told Al Jazeera. “In principle, it will make do with a freeze of some kind, when Ukraine doesn’t declare the war’s end.”
Beijing has said Ukraine’s “territorial integrity” should be maintained – and in February proposed a 12-point peace plan that was met with scepticism by Western powers. While it called for dialogue and denounced the possibility of a nuclear escalation, the plan also lambasted Western sanctions on Moscow and did not urge Russia to withdraw troops.
To convince Kyiv, Beijing “will resort to economic statecraft, economic tools” that may include a contribution to Ukraine’s post-war restoration and better access to China’s market for Ukrainian food producers, Shevchenko said.
It could be easy.
In 2017, China became Ukraine’s largest trading partner. It buys wheat, corn, jet engines and steel slabs – among other things.
Beijing also wants Ukraine to become a hub of the mammoth Belt and Road infrastructure project that straddles Eurasia from Pakistan to Poland – a role Kyiv rejected after the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea.
But if Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy brushes off China’s peace offering, Xi may start supplying Russia with weapons, including drones and microchips, Shevchenko said.
The step could be especially detrimental given that many Chinese arms are based on Soviet prototypes.
Beijing may also tacitly prod North Korea and Iran towards sending arms and ammunition to Moscow, he said.
But Ukraine’s former top diplomat thinks that this is something Beijing will not dare do.
“China should not cross the line, otherwise it will face many problems – not just economic, but political,” Volodymyr Ohryzko, Ukraine’s former foreign minister, told Al Jazeera.
A profitable standstill
Xi is not prolifically trying to push both sides towards a truce, preferring to bide his time without getting too embroiled in the conflict.
“Russia plays the role of an international hoodlum shaking the world order. The US and China benefit from the process – and will create a new [world order],” Kyiv-based analyst Igar Tyshkevich told Al Jazeera.
China consumes Russia’s hydrocarbons, uses its territory as a springboard to European markets and craves the Arctic riches Moscow cannot tap on its own.
The existing status quo, when Western sanctions isolate Russia and the collective West is deeply invested in the war, is “generally comfortable for Beijing”, says Temur Umarov, a Sinologist and expert with Carnegie Politika, a Berlin-based think tank.
“In this situation, the US doesn’t have the reach to start a conflict with China, to work out what’s happening in China, to confront it, while Russia has more and more to offer to Beijing because it has no other options,” he told Al Jazeera.
China would not mind repeating the diplomatic success it had in March when it mediated a rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
But that happened because both sides wanted a settlement, Umarov said.
“Using the same optics in Ukraine is very hard, because neither Kyiv nor Moscow are ready for talks of any kind,” he said.
‘Vassalisation’ of Russia?
Oleksandra Kurenenko, who teaches physics at a private school in Kyiv, said if China backs Russia “openly” Russia will win the war.
But so far, “we are winning”, she said.
Beijing casts its position as “neutral”, but many in Kyiv doubt the term.
“This is a pro-Russian neutrality, as China implements the vassalisation of Russia,” Alexander Merezhko, a top foreign policy official in the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s lower house of parliament, told journalists in mid-May.
As Moscow faces spiralling economic isolation and diplomatic ostracism, its role as a global or even regional player is going downhill – and Beijing fills the void, even in Russia’s ex-Soviet stomping ground from Central Asia to Belarus.
As the West decreases its reliance on Russian energy supplies and imposes draconian sanctions, Moscow is boosting oil, gas, coal and timber exports to China – at discounted prices.
Russia’s diminished, “junior” part in the alliance with China looks especially ironic given it was Soviet Russia that played a key role in installing a Communist government in Beijing in 1949.
Red Moscow also laid the foundation of China’s resurgence by providing key technologies from the construction of iron smelters to the development of a nuclear bomb.
Visits and envoys
Xi visited Moscow in March, but cut the trip short.
He also thwarted Putin’s expectations to sign deals on massive investments and the construction of a new natural gas pipeline to China.
Only a month after leaving Moscow, Xi called Zelenskyy, and the immediate outcome was minuscule.
Summarising their hourlong conversation, Zelenskyy tweeted about a “powerful impetus to bilateral ties” and hailed the appointment of a seasoned diplomat as a special peace envoy to Kyiv.
The diplomat, Li Hui, served as an ambassador to Russia between 2009 and 2019. He speaks fluent Russian, is on friendly terms with Putin, and even received an award from the Kremlin chief.
But to Kyiv, such knowledge of Russia is a plus.
“Undoubtedly, this man absolutely understands how wild Russian society is,” Zelenskyy’s adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said in late April.
Li arrived in Kyiv on May 16 and met Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba.
“Ukraine does not accept any proposals that would involve the loss of its territories or the freezing of the conflict,” Kuleba’s office said in a statement after the meeting, which ended, as expected, without a breakthrough.