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Xi Jinping's Russia visit puts focus on Ukraine

William Yang
March 20, 2023

Chinese leader Xi Jinping is in Moscow for a three-day trip and all eyes are on how China positions itself in the ongoing war. Experts describe the trip as “extremely delicate” for the Chinese President.

Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping
Putin and Xi last met in February 2022, just before Russia launched its invasionImage: Alexei Druzhinin/AP/picture alliance

After months of anticipation, Chinese leader Xi Jinping, who just confirmed his third term, arrived for a three-day trip to Moscow on March 20. Beijing has characterized the trip as "a visit for peace" that will aim to "improve global governance" and contribute to "the development and progress of the world.” 

Aside from talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Xi will also be holding a call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Russia said the two leaders would talk about the further development of their partnership and both leaders are expected to sign important bilateral documents. 

Some observers say that China is trying to capitalize on the recent diplomatic credits that it received from mediating the deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which led to the two countries re-establishing diplomatic ties.

"They want to push towards at least the beginning of a negotiation process between Russia and Ukraine," said Velina Tchakarova, a geopolitical expert based in Austria. "That's why they accelerated the visit." 

Tchakarova adds that China and Russia will try to use the trip to amplify the anti-Western and anti-US narratives while showcasing how strong the bond and bilateral relationship is. "All of these are critical from Bejing's perspective as it intends to deepen relations with many countries that are critical of the US," she told DW. 

Can China be a mediator? 

Over the last year, China has tried to present itself as neutral in the ongoing war in Ukraine, urging both Russia and Ukraine to start peace talks while calling on the abandonment of a "Cold War mentality." Even though Bejing outlined its position on the war through a 12-point document last month, many western countries remain skeptical about China's intention, as it continues to uphold its partnership with Moscow. 

Destroyed buildings in Mariupol
Russia's invasion of Ukraine has devastated parts of the countryImage: Alexander Ermochenko/REUTERS

The United States warned that China may consider supplying lethal weapons to Russia, but German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said earlier this month that Beijing had claimed that it wouldn't cross that line. And after China brokered the Iran-Saudi deal last week, some countries and analysts think China may play a similar role in the Ukraine war. 

However, Andrew Small, a senior fellow at German Marshall Fund (GMF), believes that while Beijing wants to present itself as a mediator, there are doubts about whether China would be willing to push any party in the ongoing conflict to pursue peace talks. "China would have to put pressure on Russia but we haven't seen any indication of real willingness to do that," he told DW. 

Other analysts say China's efforts to frame itself as a mediator in global conflict are only true on the surface and the bigger intention is to "drive wedges between the US and European countries." "While Beijing knows Washington's perception of China's stance on the war can't be changed, they think they could do something to change the perception of China in Europe," said Justyna Szczudlik, a China analyst at the Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM). 

Even though Beijing tries to present itself as "peaceful" to certain countries, Szczudlik thinks the fact that China still hasn't publicly condemned Russia's war proves that they haven't changed their position on the war. "Trying to convince Ukraine and Russia to enter peace talks without calling Russia to withdraw its troops from Ukraine is the best evidence that China can't be a mediator," she told DW. 

A delicate trip for Beijing 

Despite skepticism from some Western countries, Ukraine still thinks China can play an important role in facilitating the peace process in the ongoing war. On the anniversary of the war, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called on Beijing to join a summit to discuss what Kyiv describes as a peace formula. 

Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang held a call with his Ukrainian counterpart Dmytro Kuleba on March 16, emphasizing that Beijing's stance on the war remains objective and fair and that it's committed to promoting peace and advancing negotiations. He added that China has been calling on the international community to create conditions for peace talks. 

Tchakarova said Kyiv understood China was one of the very few countries that could exercise influence on Russia and push both sides toward resuming peace talks. She thinks Ukraine can use Zelensky's potential call with Xi to understand Beijing's position on the war, receive any message from Moscow and talk about some pressing, non-military issues such as commodity prices and grain exports. 

"Concrete topics like grain export, exchange of prisoners of war, or ensuring a safe humanitarian corridor are all part of a peace plan, and China can present these things as successes," she told DW. 

However, some countries remain skeptical of China's true stance on the war, as it continues to align itself closely with Russia diplomatically and economically. When China's top diplomat Wang Yi visited Moscow last month, he described bilateral ties between Moscow and Beijing as "rock solid." Wang added that China would remain committed to its "cooperative relationship" with Russia, regardless of how the international situation changes. 

Vladimir Putin and Wang Yi
Wang Yi described ties with Moscow as "rock solid"Image: Anton Novoderezhkin/ITAR-TASS/IMAGO

China also remains one of the biggest trading partners for Russia at a time when Moscow faces a huge amount of sanctions imposed by the US-led western bloc. Beijing is the biggest buyer of Russian oil while bilateral trade grew 34.3% in 2022, according to Chinese state media Global Times. 

Szczudlik from PISM argues that for Beijing and Moscow, it is important to make the authoritarian states stronger as they view the US-led western bloc as forming an encirclement around autocratic states like theirs. "From the Chinese and Russian perspective, it is the survival of the authoritarian countries that's at stake," she told DW. 

Straddling between the need to engage Ukraine while upholding its partnership with Russia, Small from GMF describes Xi's trip to Moscow as "extremely delicate."

"This trip needs to be carefully handled, as there is still a perception that Beijing continues to double down on its relationship with Russia," he said. 

Increasing international visibility 

Amid China's efforts to present itself as a potential mediator for the Ukraine war, Beijing has also increased its diplomatic charm offensive in recent months, organizing a series of summits with leaders from Belarus, Iran and Saudi Arabia while attempting to repair relationships with western countries like Australia and Germany.  

Small from GMF told DW that these moves are China's attempts to consolidate its own block. "A lot of this is block-building as much as it's peace-building," he told DW, adding that China is trying to ensure it has a group of allies in the ongoing struggle and competition with the United States. 

Ukraine: Are new alliances dividing the world?

Other experts add that Beijing will also try to increase its global visibility through the role it plays in the ongoing Ukraine war. "The war is a stepping stone for China to obtain bigger credibility internationally," said Una Cerenkova, head of the China Studies Center at Riga Stradins University. "If China wants to uphold its credibility, Xi needs to talk to Zelensky sooner or later." 

Despite some hope that China may help facilitate peace talks between Russia and Ukraine, experts cautioned against being too optimistic about the prospect of Beijing being a "benign peace actor."

"China still sees Russia as the most important partner and that's not going to change," said Small from GMF. 

"The West should keep an eye on a much-riskier scenario, which is what forms of China's support to Russia will continue to deepen. The question is whether this will create the preconditions for China to make weapons transfers to [Russia] in the future. The reasons to be concerned about where the China-Russia relationship is headed remain," he concluded. 

Edited by: Andreas Illmer