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Opinion | Despite China’s close ties to Russia, Ukraine can make headway with Beijing

Opinion | Despite China’s close ties to Russia, Ukraine can make headway with Beijing
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China is building its image as a peacemaker and mediator in the Russia-Ukraine and Israeli-Palestinian conflicts, using familiar tactics and instruments that adhere to its classical foreign policy principles. This peacemaking behaviour serves one primary purpose: to advance its national interests.

“Does peace in Ukraine matter to China?” “What is China’s constructive role in Ukraine?” “What does Putin mean to Chinese President Xi Jinping?” These were the questions I asked during conversations with Chinese colleagues and friends in Beijing. This month, we witnessed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to China with a high-level delegation. Ukrainians had a very negative reaction to the visit.

Here are the main takeaways from my discussions, which fortunately include some points of mutual understanding.

First, Ukraine must win this war. Intellectuals from top Chinese universities are beginning to publicly acknowledge that Russia’s actions cast a negative shadow on China in the global arena. I heard “Glory to Ukraine” from prominent experts at Peking University and Tsinghua University, and a similar sentiment was expressed by a scholar from Fudan University. Liberating around 20 per cent of Ukrainian territory is a challenging task, yet China’s historic victory over the Japanese invaders serves as a poignant example.

Second, Ukraine’s territorial integrity must be respected. China respects Ukrainian sovereignty and has consistently refused to recognise Crimea and other occupied territories as part of Russia. This position is unlikely to change, as Russia’s actions have violated the United Nations Charter.

Third, China’s relationships with Russia and Ukraine are unbalanced. While China maintains friendly relations with both Ukraine and Russia, the influence of Russia is considerably more pronounced. Ukraine has lost significant ground in shaping perceptions within Chinese society, a situation that predated the full-scale invasion. The Ukrainian presence in China is limited.

China’s special representative for Eurasian Affairs Li Hui, sitting third right, speaks with Ukrainian foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba, sitting fourth left, in Kyiv, Ukraine on May 17, 2023. Photo: EPA-EFE/Ukrainian Foreign Ministry

Fourth, China acknowledges Ukraine’s importance to Europe. France can foster stability by playing a role in a trilateral format involving China and Ukraine. China needs to communicate with Ukraine on the basis of recognising it as a member of the European family of nations.

The fifth point of common ground is that China has a vested interest in protecting global food security. Ukraine has historically been a significant contributor to this effort, but is now facing challenges due to constant shelling in Odesa and diminishing control over the Black Sea. Despite benefiting greatly from the Black Sea Grain Initiative, China has not taken sufficient action to help Ukrainian food exports reach the global market – but it should.

Lastly, Russia is a security threat. The depth of China-Russia relations poses significant risks to both Ukraine-China and Europe-China relations, as articulated in Germany’s strategy towards China.

I noticed there is still a big gap in understanding our aspirations, our current stance on this war and our place on the world map. China still sees Ukraine as a part of Russia’s sphere of influence and believes Ukraine has a very long path towards fully integrating into Europe.

Farmers drop grain from a combined harvester near Kyiv, Ukraine, on July 18, 2023, amid a deal brokered by Turkey and the United Nations to ensure the safe export of grain from Ukrainian ports. Photo: EPA-EFE

While China pushes Ukraine to negotiate with Russia, it has not responded positively yet to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s invitation to the peace summit in Switzerland. At the same time, China is strengthening its relations with Russia and argues that the world should accept this rapprochement as a non-aligned relationship.

The Taiwan issue remains a hot topic in intellectual circles, universally recognised as a red line for Beijing. Although Ukraine still remains firmly committed to the one-China policy, Taipei’s support for Ukraine has been notably more visible than Beijing’s efforts.

Taipei doesn’t hide its interest in establishing closer relations with Kyiv, and it has become common for the island’s officials to promote a narrative that defending Taiwan is defending Ukraine. Beijing is aware of the pro-Taiwan faction within the Ukrainian parliament and has expressed concerns over the growing closeness between Taipei and Kyiv.

Residents of Taiwan hold signs protesting the war in Ukraine in front of the Representative Office of the Moscow-Taipei Coordination Commission in Taipei on February 25, 2022. Photo: AP

I noticed many ordinary Chinese lament the scarcity of information about Ukraine, marking a critical necessity for Ukraine to engage with influential Chinese media professionals, scholars and cultural figures who could then act as ambassadors for Ukraine’s point of view.

When I was interviewed in Beijing by BBC China, I called on everyone in China to stand on the right side of history and also follow the news on our informational project, Ukraine Online, about Ukraine in Chinese, which was born out of the volunteer work of Ukrainian sinologists after the Russian invasion.

Public, cultural and scholarly diplomacy could still bridge the understanding gap. Western media and academia are engaged with Ukraine, but their Chinese counterparts remain relatively uninvolved.

However, there are a few examples. Before Feng Yujun’s article, which takes the view that “Russia is sure to lose in Ukraine”, was published in The Economist, he had presented his thoughts on the war at a forum hosted at Tsinghua University, suggesting that pro-Ukrainian narratives are not heavily censored in China. In our private conversation, Feng describes his position as pro-Chinese.

How China helps to end this war will determine the future of Ukraine-China relations. The new series of Russia-China strategic agreements, signed recently in Beijing, has sparked even more negative discussion of China in Ukraine. Chinese exports of electronics and dual-use technologies which support Russia’s war machine should be stopped.

As we move closer to the potential use of nuclear weapons, which Russia has alluded to multiple times, it remains uncertain whether Xi used his meeting with Putin in Beijing to avert a disastrous outcome and pursue China’s Global Security Initiative to “build a world of lasting peace and universal security”.

Vita Golod is a researcher from Kyiv, Ukraine

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