Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov welcomes Li Hui, China's special representative on Eurasian affairs, at the Russian Foreign Ministry headquarters in Moscow on May 26, 2023.
Hong Kong CNN —
China’s envoy for the war in Ukraine ended a nearly two-week tour through Europe with a stop in Moscow on Friday, closing out a mission that served as a key test of Beijing’s bid to broker an end to the spiraling conflict.
Beijing’s stated interest in promoting communication toward resolving the conflict has been tentatively welcomed in Europe, where Chinese special representative Li Hui met with officials in Ukraine, Poland, France, Germany, and the European Union headquarters in Brussels in a tour starting May 16.
But Li’s trip has also laid bare the divisions between China and Europe when it comes to how peace can be reached — and served to underline Beijing’s close alignment with Moscow.
Li received a warm reception during his final stop in the Russian capital — where he previously spent a decade as China’s ambassador, with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Friday praising Beijing’s “balanced position” on the war and readiness to play a “positive role” in its settlement.
But across Europe, officials stressed a different point — the need for a peace that sees Russia withdraw its invading troops and Ukraine’s legal territory restored — and their interest in seeing China throw its weight behind that vision, which it has yet to do.
Instead Li, according to readouts from Beijing, called for building “consensus” toward peace talks and strengthening Europe’s own “security architecture” — a veiled reference to China’s view that Europe should not protect itself through institutions like NATO, which include the United States but not Russia.
“The basic problem is that China does not want Russia or Putin to appear to have failed … (and) a settlement that requires Russia to relinquish territories taken in the invasion would be a defeat for Russia,” said Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute at the University of London.
As such, that’s “not on the table for China,” Tsang said. “But Ukraine cannot accept anything that does not involve the restoration of its territories,” and the EU is unwilling to see Russia “appearing to get away with” territorial gains from its invasion, he added.
A “just” peace
China — which views Russia as a key partner and counterbalance amid its own rising tensions with the West — has refused to condemn Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine or call for the withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine’s territory, even as millions have been displaced and tens of thousands killed in the Kremlin’s unprovoked onslaught into the country.
That stance has horrified much of Europe, and Li’s tour comes as China has been attempting to repair relations there.
A vaguely-worded 12-point position paper on China’s vision for the “political settlement” of the conflict, released earlier this year and promoted by Li during his tour, said the “legitimate security concerns” of “all countries” should be be addressed.
It also said the “sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity” of all countries must be upheld.
But crucially the paper did not call for the withdrawal of Russian troops to end hostilities, instead advocating a ceasefire — a point Western critics have said is tantamount to allowing Russia to solidify its illegal territorial gains.
Critiques of China’s stance on how to end the conflict and its close relationship with Russia were implicit in summaries provided by European officials of their meetings with Li, where they urged Beijing to align more with their views.
“Any attempts to equalize the status of Russia — the aggressor in this conflict, and Ukraine — the victim, are not acceptable,” Polish Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Wojciech Gerwel told Li.
“Any meaningful way to end Russia’s illegal war of aggression against Ukraine must be consistent with the UN Charter in its entirety,” EU Deputy Secretary-General for Political Affairs Enrique Mora said in his meeting with the Chinese envoy.
Frédéric Mondoloni, who heads Political and Security Affairs of France’s Foreign Ministry, told Li Paris was convinced China could play a role in a “just and lasting peace” — in particular on Ukraine’s “sovereignty and territorial integrity,” while emphasizing that Moscow held “full responsibility for the unleashing and continuation of the war.”
Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, too, underlined Kyiv’s own “peace formula,” which includes an unequivocal call for the withdrawal of Russian troops and the return of their internationally recognized borders when he met Li earlier this month.
When asked about Li’s tour on Friday, Mao Ning a spokeswoman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said China’s efforts toward peace talks have “received broad understanding and support in the international community.”
But while Beijing has insisted it remains neutral on the war, its close positioning with Russia and contentious relationship with the United States — whom it has accused of fueling the conflict by supporting Ukraine’s defense — have also raised questions over the intentions behind its push for peace.
Over the weekend, Kuleba addressed a report in the Wall Street Journal that cited Western officials saying Li pushed his European interlocutors to urge an immediate ceasefire, which by extension would leave parts of Ukraine in Russia’s control.
“I immediately contacted my colleagues in the capitals (Li) visited, and all of them confirmed there had been no talks or negotiations about recognizing as Russia those territories (it currently controls) in Ukraine,” Kuleba said in a video message on his Facebook page.
“No one will do anything against us behind Ukraine’s back, because we have built trusting relationships with all our key partners,” he added.
When asked about the news report in a press briefing Monday, Mao from China’s Foreign Ministry denied the Wall Street Journal’s characterization of Li’s meetings and pointed instead China’s own readouts from the meetings.
While China may have limited sway when it comes to changing views on the conditions of peace, observers say there are areas that Europe will welcome enhanced communication over — including food security, humanitarian relief and pushing against nuclear threats.
Meanwhile, there remains hope that China could use its relationship with the Kremlin to push Putin toward peace — a view that most recently was trumpeted by French President Emmanuel Macron during a visit to Beijing last month.
“The visit is of value for the Europeans because they can use Li to deliver a message directly to the leadership in Beijing — and potentially to Moscow. Li has a direct line to Xi Jinping, and he might be better equipped to get through to Xi than the personnel of Chinese embassies in Germany, France, or Poland,” said Moritz Rudolf, a fellow and research scholar at the Paul Tsai China Center of the Yale Law School in the US.
“The crucial question is what message from Europe — Kyiv, Warsaw, Berlin, Paris, and Brussels — Li will deliver in Moscow and Beijing,” he said.
CNN’s Xiaofei Xu, Andrew Carey, Yulia Kesaieva, Olga Voitovych and Darya Tarasova contributed to this report.