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'Russia transforming into a raw material supplier for China' - Ukrainian Ambassador

'Russia transforming into a raw material supplier for China' - Ukrainian Ambassador Chinese leader Xi Jinping (Photo:

Russia serves as a political partner and resource provider for China. In essence, Moscow's relationship with Beijing can be described as a "marriage of convenience," where Russia transforms into a raw material supplier for China. The Ukrainian Ambassador to China, Pavlo Riabikin, shared his insight in a comment to RBC-Ukraine.

Does China support Russia in the war against Ukraine?

Officially, Beijing declares that it does not support either side of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, does not assist Russia in evading sanctions, and does not provide weapons or dual-use goods.

The relationship between China and Russia is complex and has a long history. China is one of the world's largest states, aspiring to become a global leader. It possesses the second-largest economy in the world and the world's second-largest population. These factors shape the country's foreign policy, including its relations with Russia.

In its foreign policy, Beijing is guided by its own national interests. China competes with the United States for global leadership. For China, Russia is both a political partner and a resource source.

Geopolitically, China and Russia are neighbors, sharing a border of over 4,000 kilometers. Bilateral trade is a significant component of their relationship, with trade volume exceeding $190 billion in 2022.

The comprehensive aggression by Russia against Ukraine has significantly impacted the dynamics and nature of Chinese-Russian relations. Not all Chinese companies have understood the reasons and objectives behind the sanctions imposed by Ukraine and partner countries against Russia. Consequently, some Chinese companies faced economic limitations in response.

Even before Russia's open-armed invasion of Ukraine, China had been purchasing Russian oil and natural gas with substantial discounts for its own economic needs. These discounts further increased after February 24, 2022.

Currently, in its relations with Russia, China has resolved virtually all disputed border issues, secured access to cheap hydrocarbons, and relinquished investment cooperation while withdrawing from various joint projects with Russia.

In my opinion, the current Chinese-Russian relationship is more likely a "marriage of convenience," which could be explained by the fundamental ideological differences between Russia's autarky policies, rejection of globalization, and dismantling of the current world order, as opposed to China's doctrine of creating favorable external conditions for its development and maximizing the benefits of globalization. Russia, increasingly transforming into a raw material supplier and a "junior partner" to China, is concerned about the prospect of being completely pushed out from traditional regions of Russian influence, primarily Central Asia, as well as the "creeping annexation" of Russia's Far East, Transbaikalia, and Siberia.

Can Xi Jinping compel Putin to end the war?

On February 4, 2022, during Putin's visit to Beijing, the leaders of China and Russia adopted a joint statement, which, among other things, emphasized that the "friendship between the two states knows no bounds, and cooperation has no restricted zones."

Slightly over a year later, on March 21, 2023, following Xi Jinping's visit to Moscow, the two countries leaders signed another joint statement. In this statement, the parties confirmed their support for the goals and principles of the UN Charter and respect for international law. The Kremlin positively evaluated China's "objective and unbiased position" regarding the "Ukrainian issue."

At first glance, the existence of such high-level bilateral relations might suggest that China and Russia, as permanent members of the UN Security Council and global political and security players, can address conflicts and problems of any level anywhere in the world, mainly when one is engaged in an armed conflict with a third country and the other maintains trusting and pragmatic relations with that third country.

However, China has attempted to demonstrate a neutral position for the past two years. While not supporting, it also refrains from condemning Russian aggression. China places the blame for the "Ukrainian crisis" on the US and NATO, opposes anti-Russian sanctions, and calls for an immediate cessation of hostilities and the start of negotiations.

While proclaiming itself a severe and responsible participant in international relations, China, at the same time, either cannot or does not want to use its leverage over Russia to stop the war, withdraw troops from Ukrainian territory, and engage in negotiations.

That could be due to the highly close interaction between the two countries, which, despite being allies, act as a united front, share common positions on the international stage, coordinate actions, and support each other against a common adversary, collectively referred to as the West.

Additionally, implementing the achieved agreements in practical spheres, even if called cooperation by China, essentially helps the Kremlin regime survive and resist sanctions.

The cooperation with Russia also benefits China. According to Chinese statistics, trade between China and Russia grew by 40.6% in half a year, with Chinese exports increasing by 78.1% and imports by 19.04%.

(Ukraine: trade volume reduction by 31.2%, reduction in Chinese exports by 45.9%, reduction in imports by 21.9%).

What are the current relations between Ukraine and China?

In 2011, Ukraine and China declared their intention to elevate their relations to the level of strategic partnership. This commitment is documented in the Joint Declaration on the Establishment and Development of Strategic Partnership between Ukraine and the People's Republic of China.

Refer to Ukraine's Foreign Policy Strategy for 2021, and you won't find China listed among our strategic partners.

Undoubtedly, Russia's war against Ukraine has affected Ukrainian-Chinese interaction. Nevertheless, I think we should remember that the "slowdown" in this relationship began not in 2022 but in 2014, right from the start of Russia's aggression.

This winter marks a sad milestone – the 10th anniversary of the last official state visit to China. The last visit at the head of the government level took place even earlier, in 2011; at the parliamentary level, in 2007; and the head of foreign affairs officially visited China in 2012. Chinese officials visiting Ukraine have been even rarer (the head of state in 2011, the leader of government in 1995 - the only visit, the speaker of parliament in 2000 - the only visit, the foreign affairs minister in 2010).

Although the situation with bilateral visits is quite dismal, it does not fully reflect the level of political dialogue. There have been two phone conversations between the heads of state in recent years and more frequent phone calls and meetings on the sidelines of international events between foreign affairs ministers.

The COVID-19 pandemic also negatively impacted maintaining contacts. China only reopened earlier this year. Consequently, several events, including significant ones, were conducted online.

In December 2020, the Fourth Meeting of the Commission on Cooperation between the Government of Ukraine and the Government of the People's Republic of China took place. Subsequent meetings of sectoral sub-commissions followed.

Just a few weeks ago, the Seventh Meeting of the Sub-commission on Trade and Economic Cooperation of the Commission on Cooperation between the Government of Ukraine and the Government of the People's Republic of China was held in Beijing. Opportunities for other events are also being explored.

Are these efforts sufficient? Can they be considered an adequate level of interaction for us? No, we need to work with China, especially considering the removal of countermeasures and the restoration of complete contact between our countries.

Speaking about a multilateral format, we certainly desire more active involvement of China in all our international initiatives related to ending Russia's war against Ukraine, condemning Russian aggression, and overcoming its consequences, primarily within the framework of the peace formula.

China's position on the necessity of upholding the UN Charter, respecting international law, and recognizing the independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of Ukraine is crucial for us.

Is a meeting between Ukraine and China leaders possible in the future?

You know, with the onset of Russia's full-scale military aggression on February 24 last year, the international contact schedule of the President of Ukraine became, perhaps, one of the densest in the world.

Volodymyr Zelenskyy, among other things, conducted a series of unprecedented contacts in the history of Ukrainian diplomacy with the heads of various foreign states and governments. I can recall a phone conversation with the Prime Minister of Ethiopia just two weeks ago and contacts with the President of the Philippines, the President of the Comoros Islands, the President of Botswana, and other heads of state.

The President remains open to communication with all partners, and China is one of them. Therefore, consider communication with China not as a separate unique track but as an essential component of Ukraine's foreign policy and one of the many directions of Ukrainian diplomacy, which is currently, believe me, working tirelessly.

Regarding China, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy had two phone conversations with the President of China, Xi Jinping. The first occurred in July 2021, and the second in April 2023. Unfortunately, there have been no personal meetings between the heads of the two countries. However, we must not forget about the coronavirus pandemic, which led to China being practically closed to visitors for nearly three years, and President Xi Jinping not making international trips for over two and a half years.

President Zelenskyy has been and remains open to communication, which is well-known to our Chinese partners. Therefore, if Beijing demonstrates interest in another round of dialogue between the heads of our states, including a personal meeting, Zelenskyy would be eager to meet with Xi Jinping.

There is much to discuss with China. Of course, the first topic for conversation is peace – a just and lasting peace in Ukraine, Europe, and the world at large. However, this topic is not only the priority for dialogue with China. You understand that peace is a general priority for our country. Yet, in conversation with China, the issue of peace gains additional significance, as China, as I mentioned earlier, is a permanent member of the UN Security Council and bears special responsibilities for maintaining international peace and security.

Next is trade. Before the start of Russia's full-scale invasion in 2019, 2020, and 2021, China was our largest trading partner for three consecutive years. This is more than imports from China; in 2021, we exported goods worth over $8 billion to China while importing goods worth over $10 billion (meaning we don't have a critically negative trade balance for Ukraine). As you can see, China is a significant market for Ukraine, and we strive to maintain it.

Then comes humanitarian and cultural cooperation. Despite the ongoing Russian war, the number of Chinese students in Ukraine grows yearly. Let me provide you with some recent figures: in 2020, about 3,500 students from China studied in Ukrainian higher education institutions; in 2021, their number exceeded 4,000, and now over 6,000 Chinese citizens are studying in Ukraine.

Simultaneously, the Ukrainian language is taught in several Chinese educational institutions, and Ukrainian research centers operate there. We are interested in increasing their numbers and are ready to support this.

We have ideas for collaboration in cultural, tourism, recreation, health, and international cooperation. Therefore, there are plenty of topics for a possible meeting between the heads of the two countries.