Slamming China over its stance on Russia and the war, Ukraine might have made a big

In Europe

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s very public criticism of China over its relationship with Russia and cool stance toward a forthcoming peace summit could end up backfiring on Kyiv, analysts say.

Speaking at the Shangri-La Dialogue forum in Singapore last Sunday, Zelenskyy unleashed his frustration at China’s position over the war between Russia and Ukraine, accusing Beijing of helping Moscow to undermine a forthcoming peace summit in Switzerland by pressuring other countries not to attend.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy arrives at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore on June 1, 2024.

Edgar Su | Reuters

China firmly denied the accusations, with its Foreign Ministry stating that its position on both Russia and Ukraine was “just and fair” and that its decision to skip the June 15-16 peace summit was based on the fact that it did not have the “equal participation” of both sides as Russia was attending.

China analysts say Zelenskyy’s outburst was a risky move that could antagonize and alienate Beijing — and push it closer to Russia.

China “would prefer to cast itself as the role of benevolent peace maker, and wants the Ukrainian leadership to affirm that role, that relationship, and that story,” Astrid Nordin, the Lau chair of Chinese International Relations at King’s College London, told CNBC.

“The risk to Ukraine of refusing to play the role of recipient of Chinese benevolence is that Chinese leaders might change the script to one where China emphasises a role for itself as a staunch bulwark against Western hegemony, hand-in-hand with Putin,” she noted.

“Zelenskyy has little to gain from positioning himself in a way that encourages Chinese leaders to emphasise the latter story over the former,” she said, noting that China could easily signal a change of heart toward Kyiv with the “harsh treatment of Ukraine and entrenched support for Putin.” 

Ukraine fails to woo China

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping bid farewell at the end of talks in Beijing, China May 16, 2024. 

Mikhail Metzel | Via Reuters

China has presented itself as a neutral party, nonetheless, saying it’s willing to broker a peace deal between the warring parties and set out its own 12-point “peace plan” for Ukraine.

China confirmed last week that it would not send a delegation to the Ukraine peace summit set to be held at the Bürgenstock resort above Lake Lucerne, saying the event does not meet its expectations that both Russia and Ukraine take part. Russia said it would not attend the summit, and has hence not been invited. It says such a meeting without its presence is meaningless and bound to fail.

Beijing’s stance prompted the angry backlash from Zelenskyy, who accused Russia and China of contriving to sabotage the summit by using their influence to dissuade other countries from attending the event, one that it hopes will bolster international support for its own “peace formula.”

Addressing delegates at the Shangri-La defense forum, Zelenskyy said “Russia, using Chinese influence on the region, using Chinese diplomats, does everything to disrupt the peace summit,” according to a translation of his remarks. He did not give specific examples to substantiate his claims.

“Regrettably, it is unfortunate that such a big, independent, powerful country as China is an instrument in the hands of Putin,” he added.

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks with Chinese President Xi Jinping via phone line, in Kyiv on April 26, 2023.

Ukrainian Presidential Press Service | Reuters

China denied the accusations, with Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Mao Ning saying “hegemonism and power politics are not China’s diplomatic style.” “There is no such thing as China pressuring other countries,” she said, adding that Beijing’s position on the talks is “open and transparent.” 

Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, told CNBC that if Zelenskyy criticized China “in the belief that it would result in changes in Beijing’s policy, I doubt it will have that effect.”

Rejecting China’s claim to be a neutral party, Glaser believed China’s decision to not attend the summit instead reflected “the priority accorded to China’s relationship with Russia and especially Xi Jinping’s relationship with Vladimir Putin.”

With us, or against us?

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks during a meeting with Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, U.S., December 12, 2023. 

Leah Millis | Reuters

Jie Yu, senior research fellow on China at the London-based think tank Chatham House, said Zelenskyy’s comments toward China specifically displayed “his dissatisfaction on a closer China-Russia alignment rather than giving up Beijing as a whole.”

“[The] Ukrainians need as many countries as possible to contribute to its post-conflict reconstruction process. China might well play a key part of the reconstruction given the existing investments in Ukraine made in the last two decades. Not only China, but several emerging economies, such as India, South Africa and Brazil have all chosen a very similar position as Beijing did.”

India is expected to send a representative to the peace summit but no senior officials; Brazil will skip the event; and South Africa’s attendance has not been confirmed.

The Ukrainian government, she said, “does not want to turn them away completely,” but the risk is that Beijing sees the peace summit as “turning into an occasion of accusing any countries who are not on the side with Ukraine.”

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Slamming China over its stance on Russia and the war, Ukraine might have made a big

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