Welcome back to the China In Eurasia briefing, an RFE/RL newsletter tracking China’s resurgent influence from Eastern Europe to Central Asia.
Talking China In Eurasia, will air live on Twitter Spaces today at 3 p.m. CET/9 a.m. EDT and later be available on RFE/RL’s website, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and wherever else you like to listen. I’ll be joined by Finbarr Bermingham, Europe correspondent for the South China Morning Post. Tune in here.
I’m RFE/RL correspondent Reid Standish and here’s what I’m following right now.
Can China Broker Peace In Ukraine?
Chinese leader Xi Jinping ended his 14-month silence and spoke with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy for the first time since Russia poured troops into Ukraine.
What does it mean for Beijing’s efforts to play peacemaker between Kyiv and Moscow?
Finding Perspective: The nearly one-hour call on April 26 was interesting for many reasons. Xi offered to help facilitate peace talks and appeared to pledge neutrality in the conflict, saying Beijing “will neither watch the fire from the other side nor add fuel to the fire, let alone take advantage of the crisis to profit,” according to a Chinese readout.
Zelenskiy, meanwhile, reaffirmed Kyiv’s territorial integrity and his desire to restore the country to its “1991 borders,” referring to occupied areas of eastern Ukraine and the Crimean Peninsula, which was illegally annexed by Moscow in 2014.
Beijing inserted itself into the peace process back in February when it unveiled a 12-point proposal for how to kick-start talks that could lead to a lasting cease-fire. That Chinese effort has been criticized by many in the West and at times dismissed as being too accommodating to Moscow.
But China’s peace-broker role can’t be discounted. Xi has been engaging with world leaders on this issue for months, and China has diplomatic capital to spend on the issue that could translate into momentum in the future.
Despite Beijing’s close ties with Moscow, Xi has been careful not to cross a line that would lead to Ukraine rejecting it outright as a peacekeeper. That balancing act has so far managed to work. After the call, Zelenskiy characterized it as “meaningful” and positive, and the Russian Foreign Ministry commended Xi for his “readiness to strive to establish” a diplomatic solution.
Why It Matters: This call sets the stage for a wider Chinese diplomatic push around Ukraine, although there should be no illusions about the tough road ahead and about Beijing’s motivations.
As I wrote here, the call was welcomed by many European leaders, but doubts remain about China’s intentions.
Prior to the call, Czech President Petr Pavel told Politico that he believes Beijing doesn’t have “a real interest to resolve the war in a short time.”
Many analysts see the timing of the call as part of a damage-control effort by Xi following comments by Lu Shaye, China’s ambassador to France, that countries that were formerly part of the Soviet Union have no “effective status” in international law. He also disputed Ukraine’s sovereignty over Crimea.
Similarly, Beijing has prioritized repairing its strained ties with the European Union as the bloc formulates a new policy toward China ahead of a June summit and comes amid a broader Chinese effort to alleviate European concerns over its position on the war in Ukraine
“This is mainly Xi giving European leaders the optics they want to see,” Sari Arho Havren, a visiting researcher at the University of Helsinki, told me.
Adding to that, Kyiv and Moscow both seem determined to still let things play out on the battlefield rather than sit down at the negotiating table, especially with a Ukrainian counteroffensive looming.
But even if the end game is still out of sight, Beijing is clearly determined to play a role and is making the necessary moves to be in position when the time is right.
Expert Corner: A Muted Response In Central Asia
Readers asked: “Why did Central Asian governments remain silent as China’s ambassador to France made comments that questioned their sovereignty and the sovereignty of other former Soviet countries?”
To find out more, I asked Temur Umarov, a fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center in Berlin:
“Central Asian governments usually refrain from criticizing big powers’ offensive comments or policies for several reasons. First, Central Asia relies on China economically. In recent decades, Beijing has become the main trade and investment partner for all Central Asian countries. It’s well-known that China uses its economic leverage as a political tool over its partners (such as it did with Australia after Canberra endorsed an inquiry into the origins of COVID-19). Second, public criticism is not the preferred way for Central Asian political elites to achieve their goals with China.
“A potential reaction to Lu Shaye’s statement would have only created difficulties between Beijing and Central Asian capitals without any positive outcomes. This is not in the interest of Central Asia at a time when its other major partner — Russia — becomes more unpredictable and less reliable. Therefore, from a pragmatic point of view, the best strategy would be to remain silent.”
Do you have a question about China’s growing footprint in Eurasia? Send it to me at [email protected] or reply directly to this e-mail and I’ll get it answered by leading experts and policymakers.
Three More Stories From Eurasia
1. Breaking Down A UN Vote
China — along with a host of other countries that have close working ties with Moscow, like Kazakhstan, Armenia, India, and Brazil — voted in favor of a UN General Assembly resolution that labeled Russia’s actions against Georgia and Ukraine as “aggression.”
What You Need To Know: It’s a noteworthy development that received lots of attention from observers, but there’s more than meets the eye at first glance.
The resolution that passed is called Cooperation Between The United Nations And The Council Of Europe and the document refers to the “unprecedented challenges” facing Europe after the Russian invasions of Georgia and Ukraine.
China has typically abstained on resolutions that touch on the war in Ukraine, so it’s something of a departure.
However, this isn’t quite the Chinese policy shift that it may seem. Ukraine and Georgia are not the main focus of the resolution, with the two countries only briefly mentioned.
The document also does not explicitly condemn Moscow’s actions but rather “recognizes” that Russia’s military aggression has created “unprecedented challenges.”
Finally, it was passed in two votes. The first one was whether to include the language about Georgia and Ukraine. China — along with others like Kazakhstan and Armenia — abstained on this vote, like they typically do. But the language still passed and then the entire resolution was voted on again, with Beijing and others deciding to join this time.
2. China’s New Envoy
During Xi’s phone call with Zelenskiy, he announced that Beijing would send a diplomatic delegation to Ukraine and “other countries” led by Li Hui, special representative on Eurasian affairs. But who is Li and what does his selection signal?
The Details: Li is a seasoned diplomat who is the former Chinese ambassador to Russia, serving in the post from 2009 to 2019 and overseeing a pivotal period of deepening ties between Beijing and Moscow that culminated in a “no-limits” partnership in February 2022.
Li is a fluent Russian speaker and has more than two decades of experience in the former Soviet Union.
But his selection may rub some in Kyiv the wrong way. Li is a renowned Russophile who has been awarded the prestigious Medal of Friendship by Russian President Vladimir Putin and wrote in a 2020 essay that China needs a “powerful Russia” on the world stage.
Kyiv, for its part, has not expressed any public criticism, with Ukrainian Foreign Ministry spokesman Oleg Nikolenko saying in a statement that they hope Li’s deep knowledge of the region “will help him to communicate impartially and effectively with all parties.”
3. Montenegro Turns To China, Again
Nine years after a controversial highway financed and built by China plunged Montenegro deep into debt, the Balkan country is once again turning to a Chinese company to build a new stretch of road, my colleague Milos Rudovic from RFE/RL’s Balkan Service reported.
What It Means: Montenegro signed a memorandum of understanding with a Chinese consortium in late March to build a 54 million euro ($59 million) highway that will better connect the coastal towns of Budva and Tivat, providing a new route to the local airport.
Officials have said construction of the 16-kilometer road should last two years. The project is part of Montenegro’s long-term plans to develop its transport infrastructure, boost tourism, and enhance its position as a regional transport hub.
But the move has been met with skepticism due to the country’s previous debt problems with China over a highway project completed just a few years ago.
The construction of that highway was plagued by controversy and raised concerns about Montenegro’s indebtedness to China, whose Export-Import Bank provided the nearly $1 billion loan, which represented nearly a quarter of Montenegro’s GDP at the time.
This time around, Montenegro has chosen only a Chinese construction company for the project and says that it has alternative financing for the project. However, authorities have not been clear about how exactly that will play out, and officials did not answer RFE/RL’s questions on the matter.
Across The Supercontinent
Cold War 2.0 Watch: Nicholas Burns, the U.S. ambassador to China, spoke about growing tensions and long-term competition between Beijing and Washington during an interview with Politico where he said that China “is infinitely stronger than the Soviet Union ever was.”
Visa Free: Kazakhstan and China announced in April that they plan to introduce visa-free entry for 30 days for each other’s citizens, but the move has sparked some backlash inside the Central Asian country, RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service reports.
Kazakh journalist Duman Mukhammedkarim was sentenced to 25 days on May 2 for violating regulations on public gatherings after he allegedly made an online call to hold a rally against the new visa-free rules for China. He served a similar charge last month after also reportedly calling for protests.
On The Road Again: A UN Security Council committee agreed on May 1 to allow the Taliban’s foreign minister, Amir Khan Muttaqi, to travel to Pakistan from Afghanistan next week to meet with the foreign ministers of Pakistan and China.
Muttaqi has long been subjected to a travel ban, asset freeze, and arms embargo under UN Security Council sanctions.
Partners In Arms: Their relationship is far from simple, but China and Russia are deepening their defense ties with some new agreements. Listen to the last episode of Talking China In Eurasia where guest Dennis Wilder, former Asia advisor to U.S. President George W. Bush, explains what it means for the battlefield in Ukraine and what Beijing is hoping to get from Moscow in the deal.
One Thing To Watch
China has broadened the scope of its already sweeping counterespionage law in a move that could create further legal risks or uncertainty for foreign companies, journalists, and academics.
The changes ban the transfer of any information related to national security and broaden the definition of spying. The broad language used also heightens concerns for foreign individuals in China, with the lack of clarity around what kind of documents, data, or materials could be considered relevant to national security posing major legal risks to academics and businesses.
According to some analysts, topics such as the origin of COVID, China’s real pandemic death toll, and authentic data on the Chinese economy could all fall within the crosshairs of the law.
That’s all from me for now. Don’t forget to send me any questions, comments, or tips that you might have.
Until next time,
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