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China reassures Russia it's still impartial after Ukraine war talks in Saudi Arabia

The U.S. and other Western countries attended the summit, which was seen as an attempt by Ukraine to court nations outside Washington’s sphere of influence.
Ukraine is accelerating efforts to erase the vestiges of centuries of Soviet and Russian influence from the public space amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine by pulling down monuments and renaming hundreds of streets to honor home-grown artists, poets, military chiefs, and independence leaders.
The national flag waves next to the Motherland Monument in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Sunday. Efrem Lukatsky / AP

High-level Ukraine peace talks hosted by Saudi Arabia wrapped up over the weekend yielding little progress in ending the war, but they did focus attention on one global power broker: China.?

In the view of Ukraine, Saudi Arabia and China itself, merely having a Beijing delegation at the summit was a major cause for optimism. China skipped the last Ukraine-related meeting in Denmark, but it showed up in Saudi Arabia even though Russia, its ally, was explicitly not being invited.

China’s attendance shows it supports “substantive efforts” to end the war “through negotiation and diplomacy,” said Victor Gao, a prominent Chinese political analyst with strong links to the ruling Communist Party. “China will listen carefully to any idea or proposal” that is “helpful to the peaceful settlement of the war.”

The Chinese Foreign Affairs Ministry said Monday that the Saudi event had “further consolidated international consensus,” Reuters reported. It did not elaborate on what that consensus was. And the central problem for all of these peace talks is that in reality there is none.

But others are deeply skeptical of China’s ability, or perhaps even desire, to mediate a conflict in which Ukraine’s and Russia’s demands remain diametrically opposed. They also question Beijing’s motives in attending a conference led by the Global South.

Someone looking for cracks in China’s “no-limits” partnership with Russia would have been rebutted last week after almost a dozen of the countries’ ships took part in an exercise in the Bering Sea between Russia and Alaska, which Moscow said simulated blowing up an enemy submarine.

Indeed following the Saudi summit, China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi reassured his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in a phone conversation Monday?that Beijing would remain an impartial, "objective and rational voice"?despite attending the talks that snubbed Moscow.

These deep ties seem unaffected despite China recently speaking out against the treatment of five of its citizens who were denied entry into Russia despite having visas.

And with Russia and Ukraine still very far from agreeing to any sort of deal, China was most likely burnishing its credentials among non-Western countries it is seeking to influence, if not lead, said Steve Tsang, the director of the China Institute at SOAS University of London.

The Chinese, Saudi and U.S. delegations at a National Security advisors' meeting in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on Aug. 6, 2023.
The Chinese, Saudi and U.S. delegations at a national security advisers' meeting Sunday in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.Saudi Press Agency via AFP - Getty Images

For Beijing, the meeting was all about building “engagement with the Global South, rather than trying to find an actual solution” to the war, he said, referring to non-Western nations in the Middle East, Africa, South America and parts of Asia.?

“If they seriously want to find a solution, would they really just be following the lead of the Saudis,” Tsang added, “when Xi Jinping could be doing shuttle diplomacy between Moscow and Kyiv?” (Xi is China’s president.)

Russia, which was not invited to the talks, hit out at the negotiations, which Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova called “nothing but a meaningless ultimatum to Russia, aimed at prolonging hostilities.”

The summit in the Red Sea port of Jeddah involved 42 nations. The U.S. and other Western countries attended, but it was seen as more of an attempt by Ukraine to court nations outside Washington’s sphere of influence.

Mohammed bin Salman - Volodymyr Zelenskyy meeting in Jeddah
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy met with Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah on May 19.Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

“We are not looking at these talks as generating any concrete deliverables,” State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller told reporters Wednesday. Instead, it was “a chance for a number of countries around the world” to hear directly from Ukraine “about the horrors their country has suffered at the hands of Russian aggression.”

Andriy Yermak, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s chief of staff, said in a statement Sunday that they had “an extremely honest, open conversation” and “very productive consultations.”

Ukraine has presented its own peace plan — in effect calling for nothing short of total Ukrainian victory. Russia has shown no sign that it will ever accept that.?

Yermak did not detail China’s contributions directly. But Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Friday the news that China was sending a delegation to the talks was “a super breakthrough.”?

China has, indeed, been flexing its diplomatic muscles in recent years, having brokered a deal this year to restore relations between archrivals Saudi Arabia and Iran. It also sent Li Hui, tasked with being its envoy on the Russia-Ukraine war, on a tour of Europe in June, which yielded few results. It was Li, a senior diplomat with decades of experience in the old Soviet Union and its remnants after it collapsed, who journeyed to Saudi Arabia with his delegation over the weekend.

Though China has signaled its desire to act as a mediator in the Russia-Ukraine war, Xi has also publicly thrown his support behind his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. Chinese officials have blamed NATO for tensions leading to the war while criticizing the U.S. for prolonging it.

Emergency services search for survivors after a missile hit an apartment building in Kryvyi Rih, Ukraine, on July 31.Libkos / AP

Chinese officials skipped the previous peace summit in Copenhagen, Denmark, in June because it was “an anti-Russian alliance,” said Wang Yiwei, a professor at the Center for European Studies at China’s Renmin University.?

However, Saudi Arabia — often referred to as one of the “swing” countries whose alliances over the war in Ukraine are not ironclad — has a “high degree of independence and autonomy” and will not “become a surrogate of the United States,” Gao said.

Western analysts are looking for cracks in the Sino-Russian bond, but Xi is still as committed as ever to Putin, Tsang said.

“What is most important to Xi Jinping is that he and people like him do not get challenged,” he said. “If Putin can lose power, what kind of example is that going to set?”