Xi-Zelenskiy call may have been prompted by ambassador’s undiplomatic comments | China

A long awaited phone call between Xi Jinping and Volodymyr Zelenskiy has been cautiously welcomed, but China analysts say the timing suggests it could be partly an act of damage control after controversial comments by China’s ambassador to France.

Ambassador Lu Shaye, one of China’s “wolf warrior” diplomats with a history of fiery remarks, sparked outrage across Europe this week when he denied the sovereignty of former Soviet states, saying they “did not have effective status”. The comments were roundly condemned, with several European nations summoning Chinese envoys for rebuke, and politicians suggesting it demonstrated China’s untrustworthiness as a neutral party in the Ukraine war.

Beijing, which counts Russia as its closest major ally, has sought to present itself neutral and a potential peacemaker and there have been signs that Xi was unhappy with Russia’s actions, but in practice they have largely supported Russia’s stance.

“At a time when there is already significant concern about Russian ambitions and PRC [People’s Republic of China] support for them, Lu’s comments seemed to suggest that Beijing is open to continued, perhaps even expanded, Russian aggression,” said Chong Ja Ian, associate professor of political science at the National University of Singapore.

Then on Wednesday evening Beijing and Kyiv suddenly announced the respective leaders had spoken for the first time since Russia’s February 2022 invasion, something many – including Zelenskiy – had long been calling for because of Beijing’s influence over Moscow. Multiple clear opportunities for Xi to do so had passed, so the announcement surprised many, prompting speculation it was a distraction or corrective move.

“Beijing is trying to bolster ties with Europe at this time, as seen in the slew of European leaders it recently hosted,” said Chong. “Lu’s comments and the consternation it caused among the public in Europe could complicate those efforts, so a reading of events is that the timing of the call was to soothe European worries.”

The reaction to Lu’s comments had prompted an extraordinary backing down from Chinese officials, who quickly distanced Lu’s words from the official stance, saying that he was expressing a personal opinion only, that did not represent Beijing.

Russia’s invasion has complicated Beijing’s efforts to pursue a more prominent diplomatic role as a global power, which were also deeply damaged by Lu’s remarks. They also came as the European Union began work on its new China policy, which the Financial Times reported heavily discussed Lu’s comments in preliminary discussions.

Bill Bishop, author of the Sinocism newsletter, pointing to the timing, said Lu “may be in a lot of trouble, as minions should not force Xi into doing something”.

Theresa Fallon, director of the Centre for Russia Europe Asia Studies, tweeted: “We all want to see an end to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine but the timing of this comes across as damage control.”

Yurii Poita, an expert on Ukraine-China relations at the Kyiv-based Center for Army, Conversion and Disarmament Studies, also said he couldn’t rule out the call was an urgent attempt to repair Lu’s damage and “cheaply create an appearance of constructiveness”.

However it was also possible Xi decided to call because “Ukraine is preparing a counteroffensive, and after it, negotiations with Russia may begin”.

“Therefore, China is now trying to create an opportunity for negotiations to take place with its participation, which, in its opinion, will allow it to influence their results.”

During the call Xi offered to send a delegation to Ukraine to hold talks with all parties on resolving the conflict. In February Beijing had released a 12-point proposal for peace, which urged both sides to refrain from nuclear escalation and to honour human rights law, but did not consult Ukraine on it.

Poita said the call was mostly symbolic, and unlikely to lead to an end of the war.

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“For practical results, China needs to put pressure on Russia to force it to leave Ukrainian territory.”

Dr Zsuzsa Anna Ferenczy, an assistant professor at Taiwan National Dong Hwa University, said Lu’s comments deepened European distrust of Beijing but “weren’t a total disaster” for Xi.

“It also created another opportunity to convey a message for domestic consumption, shape Chinese public opinion with false claims that Europe doesn’t understand nor respect China as a great power and is ‘anti-China’, as the interview showed,” she said.

Ferenczy said the content of the call, according to the dual readouts, would probably do little to change European perceptions of China’s “neutrality”.

She noted Xi’s readout did not mention “war” or condemn Russia, and that Zelenskiy’s readout prominently reaffirmed Ukraine’s commitment to a “One China” policy (which gives a level of recognition to Beijing’s claim over Taiwan).

“The call is clearly driven by China’s self-interest,” Ferenczy said.

Chi Hui Lin contributed to this report

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