WASHINGTON — As China’s leader Xi Jinping prepares to meet President Vladimir V. Putin in Moscow this week, Chinese officials are framing his trip as a peace mission, seeking to “play a constructive role in the promotion of talks. ” between Russia and Ukraine, as a government spokesman said in Beijing.
But US and European officials are watching something else entirely: whether Xi will add fuel to the full-scale war that Putin started more than a year ago.
US officials say China is still considering delivering weapons, mainly artillery shells, to Russia for use in Ukraine. And even a call by Xi for a ceasefire would amount to an effort to strengthen Putin’s battleground position, they say, by leaving Russia in control of more territory than when the invasion began.
A ceasefire now would be “effectively ratification of the Russian conquest,” John Kirby, a White House spokesman, said Friday. “In effect, he would acknowledge Russia’s gains and her attempt to conquer her neighbor’s territory by force, allowing Russian troops to continue occupying Ukraine’s sovereign territory.”
“It would be a classic part of China’s playbook,” he added, for Chinese officials to walk out of the meeting stating that “we are the ones calling for an end to the fighting and no one else is.”
That skepticism of one of Mr. Xi’s stated goals pervades thinking in Washington and some European capitals. US intelligence agencies have concluded that China-Russia relations have deepened during the war, even as Russia has cut itself off from many other nations.
The two countries continue to hold joint military exercises, and Beijing has joined Moscow in regularly denouncing the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. China remains one of the biggest buyers of Russian oil, which has helped Moscow finance its invasion.
Chinese officials have at no time condemned the invasion. Instead, they have saying ambiguously that all nations must respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of others. They have worked with Russian diplomats to block international statements condemning the war, including at Group of 20 meetings in India in February and March.
While some Chinese officials view Putin’s war as destabilizing, they acknowledge a higher foreign policy priority: the need to bolster Russia so the two nations can present a united front against their perceived adversary, the United States.
Mr. Xi made his views clear when he said earlier this month at an annual political meeting in Beijing that “the US-led Western countries have implemented a containment, encirclement and complete suppression of China, which has brought unprecedented severe challenges to our country’s development.”
But China remains firmly anchored in the global economy, and Xi and his aides want to avoid being seen as malign actors on the world stage, especially in the eyes of Europe, a major trading partner. Some analysts say Xi has adopted the guise of a peacemaker, claiming he is on a mission to end the war to cover efforts to strengthen his partnership with Putin, whom the International Criminal Court indicted on Friday for war crimes in an arrest warrant.
Xi and Putin have a close personal affinity and have met 39 times since Xi became China’s leader in 2012.
China’s release last month of a 12-point statement of general principles on the war was an attempt to create a smokescreen of neutrality during Xi’s trip planning, some analysts say.
“I think China is trying to cloud the picture, to say we’re not there to support Russia, we’re there to support peace,” said Yun Sun, an expert on China foreign policy at the Stimson Center in Washington.
“There is an intrinsic need for China to maintain or protect the health of its relationship with Russia,” he said, adding that a senior Chinese official had told him that geopolitics and US intransigence were driving Beijing’s approach to the relationship. , not love for Russia.
Ms. Sun said China’s recent mediation of an initial diplomatic rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran had boosted notions of China as a peacemaker. But that situation was completely different from the Ukraine war: the two Middle Eastern nations had already been in talks for years to try to restart formal diplomacy, and China stepped on the scene as the two sides struck a deal. China is not a close partner of either country and has a very specific economic interest in preventing the two from escalating their hostilities: it buys vast amounts of oil from both.
When Putin visited Xi in Beijing just before the start of the Ukraine war in February 2022, their governments proclaimed a “limitless” partnership in a 5,000-word statement. The two men met again last September at a security conference in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. Mr. Xi has not spoken to Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, since the war began, let alone asked for his perspective on the peace talks.
Zelensky has said he would enter into peace talks only if Putin withdraws his troops from Ukrainian soil. That includes the Crimean peninsula, which the Russian army seized in 2014, and the Donbas region, where earlier that year Russian troops stoked a pro-Russian separatist insurgency.
Zelensky has said he would welcome the opportunity to speak with Xi, and some Ukrainian officials are hopeful that China will eventually exert its influence on Russia to get Putin to withdraw his troops. But China has not indicated that it would make such a move.
On Thursday, Qin Gang, China’s foreign minister, spoke by phone with Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine’s foreign minister, stressing that the warring parties should “resume peace talks” and “return to the path of political agreement”, according to chinese abstract of the conversation
In an interview with the BBC before Xi’s visit was announced, Kuleba said he believed China was not ready to arm Russia or achieve peace. “The visit to Moscow itself is a message, but I don’t think it has immediate consequences,” he said.
Analysts in Washington agree. “I don’t think China can serve as a fulcrum on which any peace process in Ukraine can move,” said Ryan Hass, a former US diplomat to China and White House official who is a schoolboy at the Brookings Institution.
Hass added that China would have a role as part of a signing or guarantee group for any eventual peace deal and would be critical to the reconstruction of Ukraine. “I think Zelensky understands this, which is why he has been willing to be so patient with China and with Xi personally,” he said.
European officials have had differing attitudes toward China, with some prioritizing preserving trade ties with Beijing. But China’s wartime alignment with Russia has sparked growing mistrust and hostility in many corners of Europe. On Friday, some officials reacted cautiously to the announcement of Mr Xi’s trip to Moscow: they saw it as yet another sign of China’s friendship, if not alliance, with Russia, as well as an effort by China to present itself as a mediator. in the war. .
Wang Yi, China’s top foreign policy official, stressed the need for peace talks at the Munich Security Conference late last month ahead of a stopover in Moscow. He used language that seemed destined to detach the European nations from the United States.
“We need to think calmly, especially our friends in Europe, about what efforts should be made to stop the war; what framework should there be to bring lasting peace to Europe; what role should Europe play to manifest its strategic autonomy”, he said.
He suggested that Washington wanted the war to continue to further weaken Russia. “Some forces might not want the peace talks to materialize,” he said. “They do not care about the life or death of Ukrainians or the damage in Europe. They might have larger strategic goals than Ukraine itself. This war must not continue.”
But China’s 12-point statement was not well received in Europe. And many European officials, like their Ukrainian and American counterparts, are convinced that early talks on a peace deal will come at the expense of Ukrainian sovereignty.
Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, said China’s stance was anything but neutral.
“It is not a peace plan, but principles that they shared,” he said of China’s statement. “You have to see them in a specific context. And that is the backdrop against which China has taken sides, by signing, for example, an unlimited friendship just before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began.
China’s regular denunciations of NATO anger European officials. In its position paper, China said that “the security of a region should not be achieved by strengthening or expanding military blocs,” a statement that supports Putin’s claim that he had to invade Ukraine due to threats that included expansion. from NATO.
The Chinese position “is based on a misplaced focus on the so-called ‘legitimate interests and security concerns’ of the parties, implying a justification for Russia’s illegal invasion and blurring the roles of the aggressor and the aggressed,” he said. Nabila Massrali, a spokesperson. foreign and security policy of the European Union.
Jens Stoltenberg, the NATO Secretary General, put it more simply: “China doesn’t have much credibility,” especially since “they haven’t been able to condemn the illegal invasion of Ukraine.”
edward wong reported from Washington, and steven erlanger from Brussels. Julian E. Barnes contributed reporting from Washington.