When the Chinese envoy Li Hui arrived in Saudi Arabia, to join international talks on a peace deal for Ukraine this week, it was a pointed contrast with Beijing’s decision to skip a similar forum in Copenhagen in June.
At the summit, which excluded Russia, Ukraine’s leader Volodymyr Zelenskiy promoted his vision for ending the war to a large gathering of countries from the global south.
His 10-point plan would mean the total, humiliating defeat of Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping’s closest and most important major ally. China’s representative, a mid-level official with no policy-making powers, was not there to back that project or even explore similar options, foreign policy experts say.
“Ukraine’s best-case scenario for the end of this war is also China’s worst-case scenario. Beijing fears regime change in Moscow and its potential security implications for China,” said Alicja Bachulska, policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and research fellow at Choice (China Observers in Central and Eastern Europe).
“China’s cost and benefit calculation is shaky, but overall it doesn’t want to see any substantial Ukrainian gains, since they will strengthen both US interests and Nato’s capacity to stabilise the situation in Europe, by weakening Russia.”
Instead the gathering in Jeddah offered Beijing a chance to bolster ties with allies in the global south, and attempt damage limitation on China’s reputation in the west, where there has been mounting criticism of its close relationship with Moscow.
The relationship with hosts Saudi Arabia is also important to China, and showing up allowed them to claim a diplomatic coup after the European summit was snubbed.
The large number of delegations from countries across Africa, Asia and South America, who were there to hear Zelenskiy’s position, may have been the most significant aspect of the meeting, which was held behind closed doors and didn’t claim any tangible progress.
Although Kyiv has strong support from the US and its European allies, it has struggled to garner the same backing in the rest of the world, where the conflict is frequently seen as a proxy struggle between superpowers.
The legacy of Soviet Union support for many countries in their struggles for independence from former colonial powers – many now backing Kyiv – has also fuelled reticence to oppose or criticise Moscow, even as it pursues its own colonial project in Ukraine.
But around the world, the poorest people are paying a growing price for the war in Ukraine, even when it is thousands of miles away. Heavy battles and Russia’s blockade of Ukraine’s grain exports through the Black Sea have fuelled soaring food prices, an important concern for many of Beijing’s allies.
“[Chinese diplomats] were there because they want to engage with the global south,” said Steve Tsang, director of the Soas China Institute. China doesn’t want to “appear so supportive of Putin that it will allow the global south to go hungry”.
For Ukraine, China’s presence is positive, whatever China’s aims and despite close ties to Russia. For all its support of Moscow, including with dual-use technology, Beijing has stopped short of selling weapons to Russia. And if Kyiv cannot win Chinese support, it at least wants to limit support for its enemy.
For China, taking part in peace talks allows diplomats to present the country as a responsible stakeholder in international efforts to find an end to a bloody conflict, even as it is firmly backing the aggressor.
“If [China] were really serious about finding a peaceful solution of some sort, who is better placed in this entire world than Xi Jinping to do a kind of shuttle diplomacy,” Tsang added.