Why China has stepped up contacts with Europe

Why China has stepped up contacts with Europe

Chinese Special Representative for Eurasian Affairs Li Hui, who heads the country's delegation to resolve the Ukrainian conflict, met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Moscow on May 26, according to the Russian diplomatic department. In the Russian capital, Lee completed a European tour, during which he visited Ukraine (May 16-17), where he met with President Vladimir Zelensky, as well as Poland (May 19), France (May 23) and Germany (May 24).

As noted in the Russian Foreign Ministry, during the meeting between Lavrov and Li, "an exchange of views took place on the situation around Ukraine and the prospects for a settlement." Moscow expressed "gratitude to the Chinese side" and praised "Beijing's willingness to play a positive role." Lavrov confirmed Moscow's "commitment to a politico-diplomatic resolution" of the situation in Ukraine, complaining about "obstacles to the resumption of peace talks" created by the West and Kiev.

Prior to this, on May 24, Lee said in Berlin that the way to resolve the Russian-Ukrainian armed conflict should be started "from the root causes of the crisis" (quote according to the press service of the Chinese Foreign Ministry). He also pledged support for European efforts to resolve the situation. Following the results of Li's visit, the French Foreign Ministry noted the confidence that "China can play a constructive role in restoring a just and lasting peace in Europe," taking into account the support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine. The Chinese envoy noted that Beijing and Paris had reached a "big consensus on the Ukrainian issue."

At the end of February 2023, Beijing published a peace plan for resolving the Ukrainian crisis, including the cessation of hostilities, the resumption of negotiations, the creation of humanitarian corridors for civilians, the end of unilateral sanctions, and the promotion of post-conflict reconstruction. In March, during Chinese President Xi Jinping's visit to Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin entertained the possibility that the Chinese plan would be the basis for resolving the conflict. On May 15, on the eve of the start of Li's European tour, Zhang Jun, China's representative to the UN, stressed at a meeting of the organization's Security Council that it was impossible to "endlessly wait" for the settlement of the Ukrainian crisis.

Europe received Special Envoy Li in order to once again convince Beijing to put pressure on Russia to make concessions: withdrawing troops to the borders before the start of a military operation and negotiations on Western terms, Dmitry Suslov, deputy director of the Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies at the Higher School of Economics, believes. The Europeans also do not want to openly quarrel with China and sharply worsen relations, says Suslov. In his opinion, China, in turn, is implementing its own agenda in this initiative - it seeks to maintain relations with the EU to the detriment of Brussels' contacts with the United States in order to weaken the transatlantic link. Therefore, the PRC positions itself as a neutral side in the Ukrainian issue, Suslov believes.

“The purpose of the trip is also to promote the voice of the “global South”, including Africa, suffering from the consequences of the Ukrainian conflict. China positions itself as a great power that should solve global issues, and Africa as a whole claims the same,” the expert says.

Lee's European tour began simultaneously with the announcement of the initiative of African leaders - Zambia, Senegal, Congo, Uganda, Egypt and South Africa - presented on May 16 by South African President Cyril Ramaphosa. Ramaphosa, together with a delegation of African states, intends to visit both Moscow and Kyiv, but did not indicate the exact dates of the mission. The South African leader held telephone conversations with Zelensky and Putin, with the latter backing Ramaphosa's proposal.

In an interview with the Financial Times on May 26, French businessman and founder of the non-profit Fondation Brazzaville, Jean-Yves Olivier, said he was the one who initiated the proposal. According to the French businessman, African states have the right to do so against the backdrop of conflict-provoked difficulties with the supply of fertilizer and food. On May 23, Olivier met with the Russian President's Special Representative for the Middle East and Africa, Mikhail Bogdanov. The French Foreign Ministry did not comment on either the statement or the activities of the businessman.

Olivier's statement about the initiation of mediation by African countries reflects the position of part of the French and European establishment, which disagrees with the absolute support of the American course on the Ukrainian issue to the detriment of the economies of the EU and France, Pavel Timofeev, head of the European Political Studies Department at IMEMO RAS, believes. It is logical that people appear who are trying to seize the initiative, given the influence of Paris in Africa, Timofeev argues.

There are points of intersection between France and China, as evidenced by the support after the April visit to China of French President Emmanuel Macron for his unpublished settlement plan. But there is still no real cooperation between the EU and China, the EU and Africa on the Ukrainian issue, says Suslov, Deputy Director of CCEIS.

Under the current conditions, Europe, neither in the form of the EU as a whole, nor in the form of European nation states, can act as a mediator in the conflict, being a de facto party to it, recalls Artem Sokolov, a researcher at the IMI MGIMO. China's special envoy Li's trips to the EU, as well as the African initiative, from a European perspective, are more of an attempt to support Beijing's "communication" with Europe as part of the West, he says. According to him, there are no conditions for minimally constructive peace talks. “This is understood both in the West and in Russia, and until these conditions appear, questions about finding a mediator, coordinating the EU with China are premature. Moreover, Beijing understands Moscow's position very well and hardly sees in the EU the force with which at the moment it is really possible to constructively interact in this direction, ”Sokolov believes.

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