Much like Washington’s stance on Taiwan, China’s position on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been one of “strategic ambiguity.”
Beijing has consistently emphasized the importance of sovereignty and territorial integrity while failing to condemn the attack and reassuring Moscow of its “friendship without limits.”
So there have been concerns in European capitals since China’s ambassador to France, Lu Shaye, suggested that former Soviet Union countries “don’t have actual status in international law because there is no international agreement to materialize their sovereign status.”
Beijing was very quick to roll back on this, insisting last week that “China respects the status of the former Soviet republics as sovereign countries after the Soviet Union’s dissolution.”
China also reiterated its commitment to facilitating a political settlement of the Ukraine crisis.
Beijing’s ambassador to the European Union, Fu Cong, even used his interview with a Chinese news outlet to claim that his country’s cooperation with Europe was as endless as its ties with Russia were unlimited.
Chinese President Xi Jinping reportedly held a “long and meaningful” telephone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky – the first time the pair has spoken since Russia invaded more than a year ago.
Chinese state media reported that Xi told Zelensky that China would not “add fuel to the fire” of the war but that peace talks were the “only way out” of the conflict, adding: “There is no winner in nuclear wars.”
That EU-China relations have been deeply affected by the conflict is no secret. Visits by French President Emmanuel Macron, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, and German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock have left no doubt in this regard.
While the Western coalition in support of Ukraine has so far remained constant, it also becomes ever clearer that it has been held together by United States leadership economically, politically, and militarily.
This was also evident at the recent EU foreign affairs council meeting in Luxembourg.
The bloc’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, Josep Borrell, had little new to offer on the EU’s three-track plan to provide Ukraine with one million rounds of artillery ammunition.
Most critically, and disappointingly for Ukraine, proposals on how to increase European defense production capacity have yet to be finalized.
Similarly, a new EU sanctions package against Russia is unlikely to be concluded until later in May. And the EU and Japan have pushed back against a Washington plan for the G7 countries to ban all exports to Russia.
All this adds to the question marks already raised about the prospects for a successful Ukrainian counteroffensive in leaked American intelligence assessments.
It also indicates deep uncertainty – and division – in the West over whether, how, and what to negotiate with Moscow.
On the one hand, there are those who urge the West to double down and dramatically increase its military support for Ukraine. Others advocate for a new strategy that will move the contest from the battlefield to the negotiation table.
Both approaches have their own inner logic. Both want to avoid a prolonged, damaging stalemate on the battlefield.
Such a stalemate would not just impose further costs on Moscow and Kyiv but also have repercussions far beyond the frontlines in Ukraine.
Former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev has already threatened to end the current deal that enables Ukrainian grain exports via the Black Sea.
This constitutes a vital food supply line for many developing countries. If Russia were to pull the plug on the agreement, this would also further increase tensions within the EU over transit, and market access, for Ukrainian grain.
Little wonder then that countries such as Brazil are keen to see China try its hand at mediating between Russia and Ukraine.
For President Xi, clearly more important than Brazil’s support is that of his French counterpart. Macron is allegedly working with Beijing on creating a framework for Russian-Ukrainian negotiations.
Yet, he has been widely condemned for doing so. Only the Italian Defense Minister, Guido Croscetto, has seconded the idea that China should be mediating peace talks.
Macron has a track record of, if not openly, pushing for negotiations, at least considering ways of establishing credible pathways that can get them started.
Last June, he was widely criticized for suggesting that Russia should not be humiliated. In December, he proposed security guarantees for Moscow, an idea that was similarly ridiculed by Ukraine and other Western allies.
The fact that France remains committed to the need for talks, and outspokenly so, however, should not simplistically be seen as a rush to concessions towards Moscow.
It is, in part at least, also a reflection of the very real difficulties that lie ahead on a potential path to a military victory in Ukraine. These difficulties are to some extent of the West’s own making, especially the EU’s own woeful lack of defense capabilities.
But the French position also reflects a fear of further escalation of the war with Moscow, as foreshadowed in Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s speech at the United Nations security council, and of an irreversible deterioration of relations with China.
The flurry of European visits to Beijing during the past six months, beginning with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz last November, is an indication of how important that relationship is for the EU and its key member states.
And that France is not alone in seeking an end to the war in Ukraine sooner at the negotiation table rather than later on the battlefield.
The EU’s inability to make decisive commitments to bolstering Kyiv’s capabilities to win is a symptom of a wider contest over what Europe’s vision of the future of the international order is and what role it wants to play in it.
By default or design, the outcome of this contest will also decide the fate of Ukraine.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of China Factor.