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Foreign Policy

A Well-Timed Phone Call

May 04, 2023
  • Jade Wong

    Senior Fellow, Gordon & Leon Institute

The long-awaited phone call between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on April 26 raised the eyebrows of many who thought it might never happen. It was the first by the two leaders since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine.

In the nearly hourlong call, which Zelenskyy called “long and meaningful” on Twitter, the strategic partnership established in 2011 between the two countries was stressed. Xi assured his Ukrainian counterpart that China would not “sit idly by” nor “add oil to the fire.” China’s special representative on Eurasian affairs will have follow-up travels to Ukraine, with extensive talks. 

China-Europe ties continue to heal 

Spring has seen a steady improvement in China-Europe relations, culminating in French President Emmanuel Macron’s state visit to China earlier in April. Both China and Europe are trying to walk out the shadow cast by the havoc in Ukraine. Differences over the conflict pose the biggest challenge to their relationship since the end of the Cold War.

The upward trend proved fragile when Lu Shaye, China’s ambassador to France, questioned the sovereignty of former Soviet states during a TV interview. Although Beijing soon walked back Lu’s “personal remarks,” suspicion in European capitals lingered.

Had Xi not called Zelenskyy, the awkward incident might have disrupted the recovery of China-Europe ties, as balloon incident did to China-U.S. relations.

The French Foreign Ministry applauded the call as “positive” and said that during his visit to China earlier this month President Macron “made the case to his Chinese counterpart for such a call to be made soon.” The European Union also welcomed the “important, long-overdue first step” made by China.

In a word, momentum in China-Europe relations is back. 

New round of great power games 

Galvanized by the war in Ukraine, great powers are reshuffling. China has been regarded by the West as a potential accomplice to Russia because of their joint statement that their friendship has “no limits.” However, China has not accepted that characterization. By telling Zelenskyy that China is not a party to the crisis, China has actually won a role as a mediator.

The phone call also stemmed the hawkish noise in the United States to the effect that China is untrustworthy. It also enabled China to act as a natural participant in the economic reconstruction and orderly recovery of Europe. Additionally, it struck a balance between wooing Russia and not being swept along by its actions.

Another winner emerging from China’s calculated move is Europe. Macron, who has been criticized as having driven a wedge between the Western allies after his visit to China and his remarks on Taiwan, is now able to claim some credit. He is said to be preparing a summit for peace over Ukraine, to which China will be invited. If things go well, he can demonstrate that Europe is not a U.S. vassal. 

For the United States, the phone call seemed less lyrical. It has urged China not to stand in its way. The White House has repeatedly warned Beijing not to provide Moscow with weapons, but more broadly it doesn’t want anybody to take the driver’s seat. It is therefore lukewarm toward proposals from previous would-be mediators, whether France, Turkey or Brazil.

The reaction in the U.S. to the Xi-Zelenskyy call can be described as welcoming, but with caution. Russia’s position is even more awkward. On one hand, it would be inappropriate for Russia to condemn the call, since China has become Russia’s most important and irreplaceable partner. On the other hand, Russia prefers ammunition over admonitions. 

Power transition 

In the long run, it is unclear how the phone call’s implications will play out. But it could be a sign of a more peaceful power transition.

First, the Ukraine crisis has been widely feared as a prelude of a much wider catastrophe. The Taiwan Strait has already felt the heat. Amelioration of Ukraine’s pain will dim the prospect of a global war.

Second, China’s peace initiative goes beyond Ukraine. Beijing has calmed feelings between Iran and Saudi Arabia. China’s foreign minister also called his counterparts in Palestine and Israel, offering to help them resume peace talks. Successful mediation in the case of Ukraine will greatly boost China’s role as a bridge rather than a challenger.

Third, many politicians in the West see China and Russia from the perspective of ideological and bloc confrontation. Nevertheless, as Bobo Lo, a longtime observer of China-Russian relations, pointed out, the two countries have very different attitudes toward the international order. China is an active participant in the international system. It is a revisionist rather than a revolutionary player.

By contrast, Putin’s approach to the global order is anarchic and destructive. If China contributes to peacemaking in Ukraine, politicians in the West will feel the need to read Bobo Lo in earnest.  

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