In a new interview published Thursday in the South China Morning Post, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky expressed his wish for a direct conversation with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
“I would like to talk directly. I had one conversation with Xi Jinping that was a year ago,” Zelensky said. “Since the beginning of the large-scale aggression on February 24, we have asked officially for a conversation, but we (haven’t had) any conversation with China even though I believe that would be helpful.”
Though China has taken an official stance of neutrality regarding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, China and Russia are in frequent, high-profile diplomatic contact. In March, China joined Russia in a dissenting vote against a UN International Court of Justice ruling that ordered Russia to immediately suspend military operations in Ukraine.
When Xi and Putin met in Beijing three weeks before the invasion, their governments issued a joint statement declaring that “friendship between the two states has no limits, there are no ‘forbidden’ areas of cooperation.” They also issued a joint statement imploring NATO to rule out further expansion in eastern Europe.
Putin and Xi have met 39 times since 2013. As Zelensky’s requests to talk to Xi continued to go unaccepted, Russian President Vladimir Putin even had a call with Xi in June to wish him a happy birthday.
Undeterred, Zelensky is on a quixotic quest to drive a wedge between two men and two countries whose cooperation has only grown stronger as each endures an increasingly adversarial relationship with the United States and western Europe. Zelensky told the Post:
“China, as a big and powerful country, could come down and sort of put the Russian Federation [in] a certain place. Of course, I would really like China to review its attitude towards the Russian Federation.”
China is “a very powerful state. It’s a powerful economy … So (it) can politically, economically influence Russia. And China is [also a] permanent member of the UN Security Council.”
Zelensky even went so far as to urge China to take punitive trade measures against Russia:
“I’m sure that without the Chinese market for the Russian Federation, Russia would be feeling complete economic isolation. That’s something that China can do – to limit the trade (with Russia) until the war is over.”
Politely speaking, that’s extraordinarily unlikely. China’s imports from Russia have surged since the invasion, as the Asian power takes advantage of discounted prices on Russian oil. While July tallies have yet to be posted, Russia was China’s top oil supplier in May and June, and China’s purchases in April were 57% higher than the year before.
It should be noted that China is an important trade partner for Ukraine too. Indeed, last year, Ukraine imported more from China than any other country.
Attempting to appeal to China’s self-interest, Zelensky said demand for China’s exports could be damaged if the war is allowed to continue, as businesses and consumers around the world face higher food and energy prices. “The people would have to pay for energy resources rather than for products coming from China,” he said. “Exports from China would be decreasing. That’s 100%.”
While gingerly expressing a degree of understanding of Xi’s interest in pursuing a nominally “balanced” position on the war, Zelensky argued that this was a situation involving unprovoked aggression: “The Russians are the invaders … this is a war on our territory, they came to invade.”
China, however, has expressed a far different view of the war’s origins. In April, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said the United States was the “leading instigator” of the conflict:
“As the culprit and the leading instigator of the Ukraine crisis, the U.S. has led NATO in pursuing five rounds of eastward expansions in the next two decades or so since 1999. NATO’s membership has increased from 16 to 30 countries and the organization moved over 1000 kilometers eastward to somewhere near Russia’s borders, pushing the latter to the wall.”
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