China just called Ukraine for the first time in the war. The timing wasn’t accidental, analysts say

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Chinese President Xi Jinping at a signing ceremony at the Grand Kremlin Palace, on March 21, 2023, in Moscow, Russia. China has been eager to position itself as a peace broker to end the Ukraine war, but has appeared to be allied with Moscow throughout.

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After months of apparent reluctance to engage with Kyiv on the same level as Moscow, China said Wednesday that it will send special representatives to Ukraine and hold talks with all parties on reaching an end to the conflict.

Chinese state media said that President Xi Jinping told his Ukrainian counterpart President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in a phone call — the first that the leaders have held since the war began in February 2022 — that Beijing will focus on promoting peace talks between Ukraine and Russia.

State media added that Beijing would make efforts for a cease-fire to be reached as soon as possible, in order to end what China called a “crisis” rather than a conflict.

Commenting on the call, which he described as “long and meaningful,” Zelenskyy said he believed it would “give a powerful impetus to the development of our bilateral relation.”

The timing of the call — and China’s decision to send emissaries to Ukraine — has raised eyebrows among political and defense analysts, particularly as Ukraine is widely known to be preparing to launch a large-scale counteroffensive against Russian forces in a bid to retake territory in the east and south.

A number of analysts believe China is eager to halt the conflict before there’s a massive escalation in the fighting as the spring’s muddy season passes, allowing offensive operations to begin again in earnest, and as Ukraine receives more military hardware from its Western allies.

“The spring months are basically coming to an end and it’s time for counter attacks to begin so I think China wants to be seen as immediate mediator before that escalation,” Max Hess, fellow in the Eurasia Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, told CNBC Thursday.

That’s a view shared by Oleksandr Musiyenko, a military expert and head of the Centre for Military and Legal Studies in Kyiv. He was, however, surprised at the timing of China’s call, as he expected it might wait and see how the counteroffensive proceeded before intervening.

“I was confident that China would wait for the results of Ukrainian counteroffensive and would then probably propose something [on a cease-fire and peace talks],” he told CNBC Thursday.

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks with Chinese President Xi Jinping via phone line, in Kyiv on April 26, 2023.

Ukrainian Presidential Press Service | Reuters

“But I think the Russians are afraid of the future Ukrainian counteroffensive, they are afraid that they will lose some territory that they are occupying right now … so I think that they asked Xi to call Zelenskyy to ask him to stop this counteroffensive,” he said.

China — peace broker or ally?

China has been eager to position itself as a peace broker to end the war, but has appeared to be allied with Moscow throughout, refusing to condemn the invasion, holding frequent calls with Moscow and having no direct diplomatic contact with Ukraine during the war — until now.

And when Xi visited Russia in March, he said he would hold a phone call with Kyiv but no arrangements had been forthcoming, making yesterday’s announcement even more surprising.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg made that point on Thursday when he “welcomed” the call between Xi and Zelenskyy, but he noted it does not change the fact China still hasn’t condemned Russia’s invasion.

The Kremlin, for its part, said it welcomes anything that could bring the end to the conflict closer, but said that it still needs to achieve the stated aims of its so-called “special military operation,” such as the complete takeover of the Donbas in eastern Ukraine.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping attend a welcome ceremony before Russia-China talks in Moscow, Russia, on March 21, 2023. Analysts are generally skeptical about China’s positioning of itself as a mediator and its ability to help bring an end to the war, questioning how much sway Beijing has over Moscow.

Mikhail Tereshchenko | Sputnik | via Reuters

Analysts are generally skeptical about China’s positioning of itself as a mediator and its ability to help bring an end to the war, questioning how much sway Beijing has over Moscow.

Musiyenko said China doesn’t appear to understand the conflict, noting it’s “unbelievable” for Beijing “to call the war a political crisis.”

He was afraid that any cease-fire or peace agreement deal put forward by China would include Russian-proposed conditions such as territorial boundary changes.

‘Suspicious’ timing

It wasn’t lost on analysts that China’s call on Wednesday took place just days after a diplomatic gaffe last week, when its ambassador to France, Lu Shaye, told French media that countries that were part of the Soviet Union, like Ukraine, lacked status in international law.

The comment sparked indignation in the EU as well as Ukraine and other ex-Soviet states. China was forced to issue a statement distancing itself from Lu’s comments, insisting that “China respects the status of the former Soviet republics as sovereign countries after the Soviet Union’s dissolution.”

After the incident, Timothy Ash, senior emerging markets sovereign strategist at BlueBay Asset Management, said the timing of Xi’s call to Zelenskyy cannot be overlooked.

“The timing looks very suspicious, coming after that incredible diplomatic faux pas/catastrophe by the Chinese ambassador to Paris, by commenting to the effect that post Soviet states have not right to exist,” Ash said in emailed comments.

“These may have been his actual views about Ukraine but in one interview I think he offended all of the 14 non-Russian states that secured independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. And this includes the states in Central Asia and Transcaucasia that China relies on for critical commodities. They must be absolutely furious, as is most of the post Communist space, ex Russia, in Emerging Europe,” he noted.

Ash said the gaffe could have caused immeasurable damage to bridge-building with former Soviet states and showed a lack of understanding that could be shared more widely by those in Beijing, though it was only shown by one official.

“This one comment has undermined 30-odd years of oh-so-careful Chinese diplomacy in the region,” Ash said, adding that “actually it shows that Chinese officials fundamentally don’t understand Europe.”

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