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Diplomacy Watch: Chinese diplomat shuttling to Russia, and Ukraine

Expectations are low but Beijing's foreign minister says he supports another summit at ‘right time’

Reporting | QiOSK

Chinese diplomat Li Hui, the Special Representative for Eurasian Affairs, traveled to Ukraine, Russia, and elsewhere in Europe this week in what he described as an effort to build consensus among various parties for eventual peace talks.

It is Li’s second round of shuttle diplomacy since Russia’s invasion just over two years ago. The diplomat first traveled to Russia and Ukraine in May 2023, shortly before Kyiv launched its unsuccessful counteroffensive.

The latest visit also comes at a crucial time in the war, as Russia recently made its first major territorial gain in months, and the next tranche of aid from the United States continues to be held up in Congress.

During his trip, Li is also expected to visit Brussels, Paris, Berlin and Warsaw to get a sense of whether, given these developments, thinking in European capitals has changed, and there is an opportunity for Beijing to assume the role of peacemaker.

Reports suggest that there is little optimism for any substantial breakthroughs during the trip.

“Beijing’s continued diplomatic and economic support of Russia since the war has been a sticking point in relations with Europe, which said its trust in Beijing has eroded as it steps up scrutiny of its trade with China,” according to Bloomberg. “There’s also skepticism over China’s 12-point peace proposal issued in February 2023 to end the war.” The Bloomberg report adds that the Ukrainian ambassador in Beijing has also been given the “cold shoulder,” as only a handful of his more than 40 requests to meet with Chinese ministries have been granted.

Public opinion polling also shows that Ukrainians have an increasingly negative view of China and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, however, has made clear that he wants China to be present at the series of “peace summits” that Ukraine and its allies have put together since last summer.

“Ukrainian people see China as a hostile country. But at the same time, the Ukrainian president and officials still want to see China at the same table with other countries to discuss [Zelensky’s] peace talks,” Vita Golod, chair of Ukrainian Association of Sinologists, told the South China Morning Post. “I think Ukraine still sees a Chinese mediating role because China is the only country who is welcome to Moscow and Kyiv at the same time.”

Kyiv may also welcome Chinese involvement in mediation because it may legitimize Ukraine’s stance with the Global South, which Zelensky has been trying to win over since the start of the war.

As the SCMP article notes, Ukraine is unlikely to have confidence that Beijing can act as a neutral arbiter, given China’s perceived closeness to Moscow. .

“On his last trip to Kyiv, Li was given a list of steps China could take – short of condemning Russia – to help Ukraine,” according to the SCMP. “These included working to return children transported to Russia; maintaining the openness of the Black Sea grain corridor; and helping ensure the safety of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Station, which has been occupied by Russian forces.”

Speaking at a press conference on Thursday, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi said that Chinese “efforts point to one goal: that is to pave the way for ending the conflict and starting peace talks.”

“Past experience shows that a conflict when prolonged tends to deteriorate and escalate even beyond the expectations of the parties involved,” he added. “In the absence of peace talks, misperception and miscalculation will accumulate. (...) China supports the holding of an international peace conference at the right time”

When China first indicated interest in playing a peacemaking role, Washington tepidly endorsed the possibility, but there is little indication that the two countries are willing to work together to end the conflict.

In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:

— Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan said on Sunday that he hopes that Ukraine and Russia can negotiate a cessation of hostilities soon, given the current battlefield dynamics. “On the issue of Ukraine, our view is that both sides have reached the limits of what they can get by war. We think that it is time to start a dialogue for a ceasefire," Fidan said, according to the online Turkish media outlet Duvar. "That doesn't mean recognizing the occupation [by Russia], but issues of sovereignty and ceasefire should be discussed separately." Ankara has remained non-aligned during the conflict, providing Ukraine with some military support but refusing to join Western sanctions on Moscow. On Thursday, the Turkish president’s office announced that Zelenksy would visit Istanbul for talks with his counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Friday.

— Speaker of the House Mike Johnson (R-La.) maintains that he is in no rush to bring the foreign aid bill that passed the Senate in mid-February to the House floor. There are two discharge petitions, one led by Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), the other by Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), that are looking to collect signatures that could force the bill to the floor over the Speaker’s objections.

“In the end, this all comes down to trust, which is in short supply in the Capitol right now,” according to a report in Punchbowl News. “Can Democratic leadership work with Republican Ukraine hawks on a discharge petition that would force Johnson’s hand? Is there any way Johnson and House GOP leaders [can] seek a deal with Democrats on this?”

— Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has been unable to forge a political consensus in Ukraine over the recruitment of thousands of new soldiers that he says are necessary to combat Russian attacks, according toThe Washington Post.

The lack of a clear plan “has fueled deep divisions in Ukraine’s parliament and more broadly in Ukrainian society. It has left the military relying on a hodgepodge of recruiting efforts and sown panic among fighting-age men, some of whom have gone into hiding, worried that they will be drafted into an ill-equipped army and sent to certain death given that aid for Ukraine remains stalled in Washington,” according to the Post. “The quandary over how to fill the ranks has confronted Zelensky with perhaps the greatest challenge to his leadership since the start of the February 2022 invasion.”

— A Russian missile struck the Ukrainian port city of Odessa while Zelensky was there on Wednesday. The attack hit approximately 500 to 800 meters away from Zelensky, who was visiting Odessa alongside Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, a source toldReuters. “We witnessed the strike today,” Zelensky told reporters following the strike. “You see who we’re dealing with; they don’t care where to hit. I know that today there were victims, I don't know all the details yet, but I know that there are dead, there are wounded.”

U.S. State Department news:

State Department spokesman Matthew Miller was asked about the attack on Odessa during a press briefing on Wednesday.

“I think the strike is yet another reminder of how Russia continues to strike Ukraine every single day, and it’s a reminder of Ukraine’s need for air defense interceptors, and it’s a reminder that the United States Congress needs to take action, as we have called on them to do, to support Ukraine in its fight against Russian aggression,” Miller said.

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Reporting | QiOSK
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