ua en ru

China's neutrality in Russia-Ukraine war: Beijing's diplomatic gambit and its motives

China's neutrality in Russia-Ukraine war: Beijing's diplomatic gambit and its motives Chinese Special Envoy for Eurasian Affairs Li Hui (Photo: Getty Images)

Chinese Special Envoy for Eurasian Affairs Li Hui recently visited Kyiv. The visit was dedicated to exploring opportunities for resolving the Russian-Ukrainian war. Despite the stated "candid and friendly" tone of the negotiations, it seems that the second attempt was as unsuccessful as the first.

More details about Li's negotiating tour, China's position, and whether to expect a restart of the peace process can be found in the material by RBC-Ukraine.

Sources: Statements from the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Office of the President of Ukraine, material from Reuters, Bloomberg, and the South China Morning Post, and comments from Ukrainian Institute for the Future analyst Iliya Kusa.


Who is Li Hui, what happened before, and why did he go on tour again

The second round of Chinese boat diplomacy kicked off last week. Special Envoy for Eurasian Affairs Li Hui has already visited Russia, the EU headquarters in Brussels, Poland, and Ukraine, and intends to meet with German and French diplomats. However, it's still unclear whether the results will differ from those of the first tour in 2023. And is Beijing really interested in ending the war, considering that the West is depleting its resources while Russia is becoming increasingly dependent on China?

As for the negotiator himself, Li is 70 years old, and he began his diplomatic career in 1975 in the Soviet-European Department of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. After the collapse of the USSR, he served as the first secretary of the embassy in Russia, and then as the first secretary and counselor of the embassy in Kazakhstan. He climbed the career ladder at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and from 2009 to 2019, he was the ambassador to Moscow. He even received the Order of Friendship from Vladimir Putin.

As a mediator in peace talks, Li attempted to intervene after the April conversation between President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Chinese President Xi Jinping. During the first round of boat diplomacy from May 15 to 26, 2023, he discussed political settlement with Ukraine, Poland, France, Germany, the EU, and Russia.

China's neutrality in Russia-Ukraine war: Beijing's diplomatic gambit and its motives

Photo: Li Hui in 2023 had already visited Ukraine and supposedly suggested recognizing the Russian occupation of territories in Europe (Getty Images)

Then Li outlined a list of steps that China could take (without condemning Russia): the return of deported children, support for a grain corridor, and assistance in securing the captured Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant. However, this did not lead to progress or agreements, essentially boiling down to formalities. Kyiv praised Beijing for respecting Ukraine's integrity, while Moscow applauded its efforts to "resolve the conflict diplomatically."

The May visit coincided with preparations for the summer counteroffensive. Ukraine did not seek negotiations with Russia, hoping that the liberation of territories would strengthen its position. Now Li has arrived against the backdrop of the withdrawal of Defense Forces from Avdiivka, problems with Western aid, and limited successes of the Russian army on the front lines. Last time, as reported by Western media, he proposed that Europe recognize the occupation of territories for a ceasefire. Now Ukraine appears weaker than it did a year ago, and it's possible that there was a calculation of its compliance.

"Perhaps, but why the visit happened yesterday actually doesn't matter. It could be related to the situation on the front lines, the second anniversary of the invasion (China came up with peaceful proposals before the first one), or because we are advancing the Peace Summit and want to invite many countries, including China. Maybe they wanted to talk about peace before deciding whether to participate in the summit proposed by Volodymyr Zelenskyy," says Iliya Kusa, an analyst at the Ukrainian Institute for the Future.

Attempt #2. What is known about the second round of the Chinese peace initiative

The route of this year's Li Hui's tour practically repeats the schedule of the first one, with the difference that Russia became the first point, not the last. On Saturday, March 2, there was a "thorough exchange of views" between him and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Galuzin.

"It was stated that any discussion of political-diplomatic settlement is impossible without Russia's participation and consideration of its interests in the security sphere," the Russian Foreign Ministry noted, adding that the "dialogue formats and ultimatums" proposed by Ukraine cannot serve as its basis.

The Chinese side limited itself to words about readiness to facilitate peaceful negotiations and act as a mediator.

"Historical experience shows that any conflict in the end has to be settled through negotiations. The more acute the conflict is, the more important it is not to give up efforts for dialogue," the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs emphasized.

On Monday, Li visited the headquarters of the EU in Brussels. European diplomats reiterated that respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine remains paramount. They expressed willingness to support Kyiv "with whatever it takes to prevail," and expressed hope that China, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, will demand that Russia respect the Charter and immediately withdraw its troops.

As reported by the South China Morning Post, European officials and diplomats believe that the Chinese tour aims to gauge the temperature regarding how Europe's views have changed and whether this allows Beijing to act as a mediator in the negotiations. Some of them emphasize that Ukraine's desire to secure China's support fits into the logic of broader efforts to attract the attention of Global South countries.

"Ukrainians really believe that [China] can influence things and looking at how difficult it's been for them with the South Africans or Brazilians, China has some leverage over them as well," the SCMP quotes a high-ranking official from Brussels.

China's neutrality in Russia-Ukraine war: Beijing's diplomatic gambit and its motivesPhoto: Negotiations with the Chinese delegation in Kyiv (

On Wednesday, Li met with Polish Deputy Foreign Minister Władysław Bartoszewski. The Polish side called the war a threat and urged Beijing to refrain from political, economic, and military assistance to Russia. In response, Li expressed readiness to continue international consultations. Already on Thursday, he was received at the Office of the President of Ukraine and held a briefing with people from the Cabinet of Ministers, military intelligence, and the General Staff.

It is reported that the Chinese delegation was briefed on the situation on the front line, the operation of the grain corridor, and shown fragments of a downed North Korean rocket. The parties discussed the possibility of settlement based on the Ukrainian peace formula. In addition, the issue of China's assistance in ending the deportation of children, prisoner exchange, de-occupation of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, and support for other Ukrainian initiatives was raised again.

"Special Representative Li Hui held candid and friendly talks on China-Ukraine relations and the Ukraine crisis," the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs noted.

Peace formulas, China's position, and why Ukraine needs its support

Officially, China demonstrates neutrality, but it's hard to call it unbiased. Ukraine has previously expressed concerns about China's potentially pro-Russian position, considering the previously declared "endless friendship" between Russia and China.

In October 2022, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy presented a Peace Formula. The plan, consisting of 10 points, includes restoring Ukraine's territorial integrity, withdrawing Russian troops, the need for security guarantees, and establishing a tribunal for Russian war crimes.

However, China has a different opinion. In February 2023, proposals with 12 points were published, and although the document generally advocates for peace, it lacks specificity on key issues. Despite supporting Ukraine's sovereignty, Beijing effectively defends Moscow, justifying the invasion by NATO expansion and alleged disregard for Russia's interests. Calls for lifting sanctions and condemning Western aid, which "adds fuel to the fire," allow interpreting China's position as passive support for Russia.

Over the past year, nothing has changed. According to Bloomberg, at the Munich Security Conference, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba sought to persuade China to participate in the Global Peace Summit, which could take place in Switzerland in the spring. Although the issue was discussed with Chinese counterpart Wang Yi, his standard statements about facilitating negotiations suggest that Beijing generally doesn't consider the Ukrainian formula realistic, at least for most points.

China's neutrality in Russia-Ukraine war: Beijing's diplomatic gambit and its motives

Photo: Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi limits himself to words about China's desire to be a mediator in the peace process (Getty Images)

"Some of them are in China's interest. For example, the issue of nuclear security is of interest to China. Another issue is that China disagrees with the immediate withdrawal of Russian troops from the occupied territories. The Chinese consider this unrealistic, as do many other non-Western countries. They believe that negotiations cannot start with such a demand, as it's a maximalist condition from Ukraine, essentially undermining the restart of the negotiation process. They want a compromise: either change the Peace Formula or use a different plan as the basis for negotiations. Our government is not ready for compromise because if we abandon the point on the withdrawal of Russian troops, it will be perceived as betrayal and relinquishment of territories," says analyst Iliya Kusa.

Nevertheless, China's position is important, and Ukraine continues to try to sway it in its favor. Moreover, it has intensified its efforts. For example, on the eve of the second anniversary of Russia's invasion, Chinese Ambassador Fan Xianrong was among dozens of diplomats in a photo with Zelenskyy, which he published on his X microblog.

Beijing's voice is important for several reasons, not just political ones. It remains one of the largest trading partners, which Ukraine shouldn't dismiss under current conditions, explains Kusa.

"Plus, as it turns out, China has become a source for purchasing drone components and more. They sell them to Russia as well, but it's still a good cheap source that benefits us," he noted.

China holds significant political weight in Global South countries, and good relations with Beijing can yield political dividends when it comes to dialogue with the conditional non-Western bloc. Additionally, China remains one of the centers of influence in the Western world and has certain leverage over Russia as its share of the Russian market grows.

"On the other hand, how willing is China to exert pressure? That's another question, but in my opinion, if it sees it's advantageous to push Moscow towards negotiations, it could happen. However, how much will economic arguments personally influence Vladimir Putin? It's a problem of purely political ideology underlying the ideology. In any case, China is a valuable partner for us. At least it's better for it to maintain such neutrality than to openly provide military assistance to Russia," says the analyst.

He also adds that both during and after the war, it's important to diversify foreign trade. Neither Ukraine's geography nor its desire to open new markets will disappear. It's just difficult to deepen dialogue right now when positions on the war differ.

Should we expect a restart of the peace process after Li Huey's visit

Considering China's historically cool stance on Ukrainian initiatives and the diplomatic race with the US, it's unlikely that Li Hui's visit will bring any results. It seems that the Chinese side considers Kyiv entirely dependent on Washington. The fact that China participated in only one of the four Peace Formula meetings indicates that it, firstly, doesn't want to quarrel with Russia and, secondly, doesn't want to support the Western trend.

China's neutrality in Russia-Ukraine war: Beijing's diplomatic gambit and its motives

Photo: Despite the positive tone of the reports about the visit, Li Hui's arrival is not expected to bring about a breakthrough and restart the peace process with Russia (

In any situation, China primarily follows its own interests, so there are doubts about the sincerity of its ambitions to become a mediator in resolving the Russian-Ukrainian war. Perhaps it is willing to provide a platform for negotiations, but evidently, Ukraine does not trust it.

"Most likely, mediation will be given to other countries. I'm betting on Türkiye or Arab countries, which arrange both us, Russia, and Europe. However, China can mediate in supporting the negotiation process when it begins. And it may be a guarantor of future agreements between Russia and Ukraine. So it may play a limited role, although we should not assume that Beijing will support us. It has other interests, for example, an interest in weakening the US, which contradicts our interests because Washington is our partner. Therefore, the Chinese will take a middle position, this should be taken into account and involve them in negotiations. In principle, there is nothing wrong with this; we lose nothing from it," notes Kusa.

According to him, any international agreements signed with the participation of China and other countries will have greater legitimacy than without them. Most likely, Beijing itself will not want a greater role; it generally sees it as quite limited, as the war in Ukraine is not at the top of its priority list.

Like the first, the second round of Chinese visits will not lead to a restart of the peace process. Like a year ago, the position boils down to the fact that Ukraine and Russia should stop at the current front line, and cease fire, while China does not demand the withdrawal of Russian troops. Such a position is unacceptable to everyone.

"For Ukraine, it is clear because we continue fighting until our territories are liberated. And Russia will not stop, as it believes it has now seized the initiative and can occupy new lands. Therefore, in my opinion, Li was poorly received in Moscow, at a very low level, and his visit was almost not covered. They showed that they are not interested in China's mediation or its peaceful proposals. We received him at a higher level, but I also don't expect any further agreements. China's position is unpopular among politicians and in our society. It proposes things that we are not politically ready for," summarizes Kusa.