Beijing’s top diplomat in Moscow to try to broker Russo-Ukraine peace deal and improve China’s standing with the West

Beijing’s top diplomat in Moscow to try to broker Russo-Ukraine peace deal and improve China’s standing with the West
Beijing’s top diplomat Wang Yi is in Moscow to try to broker a Russo-Ukraine peace deal, and he was a vocal supporter of Russia in the early days of the Ukraine war. / bne IntelliNews
By Ben Aris in Berlin February 23, 2023

Beijing’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, arrived in Moscow and is due to have a closed-door meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on February 22, where he will try to broker a peace deal to end the Russo-Ukraine war.

Wang, who is the Director of the Office of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission of the Chinese Communist Party and also a member of the Politburo of the Chinese People’s Republic, has been touring European capitals, stopping off in Berlin, Paris and Rome on his way to Russia.

Russia and China may reach the target of $200bn worth of trade turnover earlier than planned, Russian President Vladimir Putin said in the few public comments on his meeting.  

"We set the goal of reaching [trade turnover] worth $200bn in 2024. Last year it was already worth $185bn, and there are all grounds to suggest that we will reach our trade turnover targets probably even earlier than planned," he said. 

Russia's Foreign Minister Lavrov issued a short statement after Wang met with Russia's foreign minister.

"Wang Yi outlined China’s vision of the root causes of the Ukraine crisis as well as approaches to its political settlement. Lavrov positively assessed Beijing’s constructive line and confirmed the high degree of similarity between our assessments in this array of issues," the statement said.

The two diplomats hailed the current state of Russian-Chinese relations, which continue "to develop dynamically in the wake of drastic changes in the international arena." Sergei Lavrov and Wang Yi touched upon a range of pressing international issues, including the Asia-Pacific Region, the Korean Peninsula and Afghanistan. The diplomats emphasised the importance of fostering close foreign policy co-ordination at a variety of international platforms.

"They confirmed that third countries’ attempts to obstruct the healthy and dynamic progress of Russian-Chinese relations and to restrain our countries’ growth by imposing sanctions and other illegitimate methods were futile," the foreign ministry said.

He also talked to Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba on February 21. Kuleba confirmed that Wang has a peace deal proposal but has not shared the details with Kyiv yet.

The meeting between Wang and Putin is probably a preliminary meeting ahead of Chinese President Xi Jinping's planned visit to Russia in the next month or two – the details of Xi’s trip have not been set yet – where more talks on ending the war are likely.

Kuleba confirmed that Wang shared with Kuleba the key points of the peace plan but Kyiv remains cautious until it see a full draft version, Kuleba said.

According to various reports, the plan may include a ceasefire and a halt in the supply of weapons to Ukraine, calls for respect for territorial integrity, ensuring the safety of nuclear power plants and the inadmissibility of the use of chemical and bacteriological weapons. Separate provisions of the plan may echo Putin’s complaints about US aggression made during his state of the nation speech on February 21 and could be included in the draft alternative UN resolution to a Western revolution that is due to be read on the anniversary of the February 24 invasion in New York, The Bell reports.

The Bell speculated that Wang is hoping for a Korean resolution to the war, where the conflict will be frozen and a demilitarised zone set up along the line of contact in the Donbas that could extend all the way down to the Crimea peninsula.

"Yes, we had a meeting with China's top diplomat Wang Yi; he shared with me the key points of the Chinese peace plan. We look forward to receiving the text, as this is not something where one can draw conclusions just by hearing what the plan is about. We need to know all the details. As soon as we receive the document, we will carefully study it and draw conclusions," Kuleba said at a joint press conference with EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell and Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in Brussels on February 21, as cited by Interfax Ukraine.

Kuleba also said that the peace plan proposed by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy remains the priority for Ukraine. That plan calls for Russia to quit Ukraine entirely, including handing back Crimea, to admit culpability and to agree to pay reparations.

Moscow’s terms for starting peace talks include Kyiv’s recognition of its sovereign control over Crimea, the Donbas and the four Ukrainian regions that Moscow annexed in faux referenda at the end of September.

The peace proposal is being met cautiously by Kyiv, as China has so far thrown its partial support behind Russia. However, it has not endorsed Russia’s war nor offered to supply Russia with materiel. Its leading banks have also cut ties with Russian banks, afraid of bringing down US secondary sanctions on themselves, as the US and EU account for $1 trillion of trade a year – by far China’s biggest trade partner. The lukewarm Chinese support has been clearest in China’s repeatedly abstaining from votes in the UN at both the Security Council level and in the General Assembly to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine a year ago this week.

Xi Moscow bound

Wang arrived in Moscow on February 21 and met with close Putin ally Nikolai Patrushev, the former head of Russia’s security services and now the chairman of the Security Council. He told Patrushev that there were “no limits” to the partnership between China and Russia and that their relationship was “rock solid.”

"Chinese-Russian relations are mature in character: they are rock solid and will withstand any test in a changing international situation," Wang told "Comrade" Patrushev through a Russian interpreter in remarks aired on state television.

Patrushev replied that China was a key Russian partner and that they needed to “stand up against the West.”

"In the context of a campaign that is being waged by the collective West to contain both Russia and China, the further deepening of Russian-Chinese co-operation and interaction in the international arena is of particular importance," RIA cited Patrushev.

Wang is no stranger to Russia. He very publicly stood shoulder to shoulder with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in the middle of March shortly after the start of the war in a show of solidarity with Russia, as Lavrov said: “We have no relations with the EU” on March 23. The EU has just imposed sanctions on China over its treatment of the Uighur minority, who are held in large numbers in concentration camp-like centres in the interior of the country. China has also been subjected to trade restrictions during the Trump presidency.

Part of Wang’s trip is to prepare for Xi’s arrival in Moscow for a summit in the coming months, according to a report by Wall Street Journal on February 21, citing people familiar with the plan. Xi is expected in April or early May for the annual end of WWII celebrations.

Putin confirmed that Russia is awaiting the visit of his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping after meeting Wang.

"We are expecting the president of the People's Republic of China to visit Russia. We agreed on this earlier," Putin said after talking to Wang.

China and Russia have been pushed together by their joint poor relations with the US and both Putin and Xi see the West as in decline and prone to interfere in their internal affairs. In US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s first foreign policy review last year, Washington named China as its biggest long-term "strategic competitor" and Russia as an "acute threat".

Beijing is concerned about being dragged into the war in Ukraine and is already under scrutiny by Washington, which suspects it of supplying weapons to Russia. More generally, as bne IntelliNews has reported, China is actively trading with Russia, buying up cheap crude oil as well as supplying Russia with microchips and other goods it can no longer obtain in the West. While the scale of these sanction busting exports to Russia are not clear, according to anecdotal evidence it appears China’s help with dodging the technology sanctions has been significant, Elina Ribakova, deputy chief economists at Institute of International Finance (IIF) told bne IntelliNews in a recent podcast. “Russia is getting everything it needs”.

Xi is expected to use the peace talk issue to repair some of damage done to China’s standing in Europe and the New York Times reports that he is, like Wang, expected to call in at several European cities on his way to Moscow.

Wang is almost certainly including China’s own political agenda demands in any Russo-Ukraine peace deal and, like Russia, wants to mute Western criticism of some of its more toxic policies. "I want to confirm our continued support for Beijing over the issues of Taiwan, Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong," Patrushev pointedly said during his conversation with Wang.

While any peace negotiations between Moscow and Kyiv are unlikely to start soon, as their positions are so far apart, foreign policy commentators say that China has little to lose from its initiative. Given the stalemate, any initiative will be welcomed and China will earn credits with the Global South in particular, which has not backed the Western sanctions, while many countries resent US pressure to bring them on board. By acting as peacemaker in the Russo-Ukraine war, Beijing positions itself as a counterbalance to US power in the Global South and could undermine support for the Western position in the upcoming UN vote.