Ni hao, Mr Zelensky, it's Xi Jinping on the line
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Ni hao, Mr Zelensky, it's Xi Jinping on the line

Russian Matryoshka dolls depict Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, and Russian President Vladimir Putin at a gift shop in central Moscow on Monday. AFP
Russian Matryoshka dolls depict Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, and Russian President Vladimir Putin at a gift shop in central Moscow on Monday. AFP

The two most fraught conversations this week both have Chinese President Xi Jinping on one side. In Moscow, he's currently talking to his Russian counterpart and host, Vladimir Putin. In a video conference or phone call that's assumed to follow within days, he'll then interface with the Ukrainian leader, Volodymyr Zelensky.

In tone, that second conversation is sure to be stilted and awkward. In substance, it's unlikely to achieve much, if anything. And yet, the nuances will be consequential -- both for Ukraine's war of self-defence and for global diplomacy and world order. How should Mr Zelensky approach the call?

Mr Xi -- fresh from securing himself an eyebrow-raising third term in office -- is trying to do four things. First, he wants to push back globally against the US, which he accuses of trying to impede China's rise. Second, he wants to pose -- with a keen eye to audiences in the "Global South" -- as a global peacemaker and honest broker. Third, he aims to prevent Russia's war against Ukraine from escalating to a nuclear conflict. And last, he wants to enshrine his own interpretation of sovereignty as a guiding principle to global politics, with a view to Taiwan.

For the first objective -- staring down the US-led West -- Mr Xi still regards Mr Putin as a useful understudy, who must be kept from failing outright in Ukraine. Hence the compliment of a visit and hints of military support.

For the second -- posing as peacemaker -- Beijing last month published a highfalutin "Global Security Initiative Concept", followed by 12 theses for a "Political Settlement of the Ukraine Crisis". Mr Xi also picked up some diplomatic street cred recently when China brokered a detente in an unrelated conflict, the one between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Mr Xi's third objective -- to prevent World War III or nuclear escalation -- is shared by the US and its partners. Here Mr Xi, with his sway over Mr Putin, can play a helpful role.

It's the fourth objective -- the definition of sovereignty and integrity -- where things get complicated. Mr Xi wants the world to stipulate who is and isn't sovereign. And he places Taiwan in the latter category. Formally, Beijing and Taipei agree that there's only one China, disagreeing "only" over its official name and government. Even the US hews to a "One-China Policy". So whenever Mr Xi stresses the words "sovereignty" or "territorial integrity", he's glancing at Washington and telegraphing: "Stay out of our business, in our province of Taiwan."

That same respect for territorial integrity should therefore make Mr Xi condemn Mr Putin's invasion and side with Ukraine. The country has been independent and sovereign since 1991, and (unlike Taiwan) is a member of the United Nations. On paper, Russia recognises Ukraine too. In 1994, Moscow even gave Kyiv assurances over its integrity and security in return for the Ukrainians giving up their Soviet-era nuclear warheads.

But China hasn't denounced Mr Putin's attack. This omission exposes Mr Xi as a hypocrite rather than an honest broker. After papering over the first point in his own peace plan -- territorial integrity -- he has no credibility in pushing the others, from "ceasing hostilities" to "resuming peace talks".

Writing in a Chinese newspaper before Mr Xi's visit, Mr Putin has signalled that for talks to start, Ukraine would have to accept Russia's illegal annexations of Ukrainian territory. If Mr Xi cajoles Mr Zelensky into negotiations on that basis, the Chinese leader clearly doesn't believe in sovereignty at all. Talking would amount to capitulation in the face of aggression.

So how should Mr Zelensky answer the phone? In 2019, it was former US president Donald Trump on the line. Sounding like a Mafia Don, Mr Trump attempted to bully Mr Zelensky ("I need you to do us a favour though…") into investigating Joe Biden, Mr Trump's opponent at the time. Somehow, Mr Zelensky managed to stay diplomatic without giving in.

He'll need that aplomb again with Mr Xi. Simply rebuffing Chinese overtures is not an option, because Kyiv is fighting not only a physical war but a contest of narratives to win moral, economic and military support across the world. And from the Global South to Putin sympathisers in the West, too many people with influence would be ready to hand Mr Putin a propaganda victory.

Mr Zelensky should instead recognise that Mr Xi is really after sound bites that make him look good. So the Ukrainian president should give him some, but focus on point one of Mr Xi's own peace plan.

During the call, Mr Zelensky should insist on his country's sovereignty and territorial integrity as the basis of all subsequent talks, and get his Chinese counterpart to nod along. After all, it's simply what Beijing is urging, is it not?

If Mr Xi's overture is only a bluff, let Mr Zelensky call it. If it has substance, let's find out and build on that. ©2023 Bloomberg

Andreas Kluth is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics. A former editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for the Economist, he is the author of 'Hannibal and Me'.

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