China is playing an increasingly prominent role on the sidelines of Russia’s war in Ukraine as the conflict drags on into its second year.
From a “position paper” on resolving the war to allegations that Beijing may be mulling arms to Russia and meeting with close Moscow allies, here is a rundown of China’s growing say in the conflict:
Arms to Russia?
For much of the war, China has framed itself as a neutral party, while retaining close ties with Russia.
Chinese state-controlled firms have sold non-lethal drones and other equipment to both Russia and Ukraine, forcing Moscow to turn to Iran for armaments.
Washington believes that might be about to change, however, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken saying last month that China is “considering providing lethal support” to Russia.
Beijing swiftly denied the claims, accusing the United States of “fanning the flames” of the war with massive arms shipments to the Ukrainian government.
The United States is yet to provide concrete evidence that China is mulling sending arms to Russia, but experts have told AFP there is some credence to the claims — and that Beijing entering the conflict could be a “game changer”.
China has over the last year faced mounting calls from the West to condemn Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Seeking to portray itself as a mediator, Beijing last week unveiled a 12-point paper to bring peace, which included respecting all countries’ territorial sovereignty.
Timed to coincide with the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion of its neighbour, the document urged all parties to “support Russia and Ukraine in working in the same direction and resuming direct dialogue as quickly as possible”.
But the paper, while praised by the United Nations and Russia, was immediately met by scepticism from Ukraine’s allies, with NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg saying Beijing “doesn’t have much credibility because they have not been able to condemn the illegal invasion of Ukraine”.
And Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund, told AFP that the document “was largely a summary of China’s statements over the past year”.
“Beijing still claims NATO is the cause of the war and refused to condemn Russia’s invasion. This is old wine in a semi-new bottle,” said Glaser.
Meeting Putin’s friends
As Beijing talks up its neutral stance, China’s President Xi Jinping this week meets with Belarusian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko.
As one of Putin’s few reliable foreign partners, Lukashenko could provide Beijing with updated insight into the developing situation in Ukraine, potentially influencing Chinese strategy on the issue.
Economic ties between Belarus and China had been steadily strengthening until the pandemic and Russia’s invasion caused widespread disruption to supply chains and the global economy.
Belarus was used by Russia as a military staging ground for its full-scale assault on Ukraine last February, initiating a prolonged conflict.
Xi and Lukashenko formally declared their countries to be “all-weather, comprehensive partners” last September, and the Belarusian leader’s visit to Beijing is likely intended to return bilateral ties to their pre-2020 trajectory.
Talks with Zelensky?
On the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky expressed a desire to meet with Xi to discuss Beijing’s proposals to resolve the crisis.
“I really want to believe that China will not supply weapons to Russia,” Zelensky said.
The Chinese foreign ministry has not yet provided details on a potential meeting between the two sides, maintaining repeatedly that they “keep close communications with relevant parties”.
Zelensky welcomed China’s 12-point paper, a position echoed by the Russian foreign ministry, which said it “shares Beijing’s views”.
The Ukrainian president would likely use a meeting to urge Beijing to wield its leverage on Russia and take meaningful steps towards resolving the conflict.
But so far China has shown no sign of such intentions, Elizabeth Wishnick, Senior Research Scholar at Columbia’s Weatherhead East Asian Institute, told AFP.
“To the contrary, (President Xi) is considering a visit to Moscow and continues to parrot Russian propaganda on the US and NATO responsibility for the war,” said Wishnick.