Comment: Call between Xi, Zelenskyy will be awkward, pivotal

Xi, with hopes for reunification with Taiwan, will have to respect Ukraine’s desire for sovereignty.

By Andreas Kluth / Bloomberg Opinion

The two most fraught conversations this week both have Chinese President Xi Jinping on one side. In Moscow, he’s currently talking to his Russian counterpart and host, Vladimir Putin. In a video conference or phone call that’s assumed to follow within days, he’ll then interface with the Ukrainian leader, Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

In tone, that second conversation is sure to be stilted and awkward. In substance, it’s unlikely to achieve much, if anything. And yet, the nuances will be consequential — both for Ukraine’s war of self-defense and for global diplomacy and world order. How should Zelenskyy approach the call?

Xi — fresh from securing himself an eyebrow-raising third term in office — is trying to do four things. First, he wants to push back globally against the U.S., which he accuses of trying to impede China’s rise. Second, he wants to pose — with a keen eye to audiences in the “Global South” — as a global peacemaker and honest broker. Third, he aims to prevent Russia’s war against Ukraine from escalating to a nuclear conflict. And last, he wants to enshrine his own interpretation of sovereignty as a guiding principle to global politics, with a view to Taiwan.

For the first objective — staring down the U.S.-led West — Xi still regards Putin as a useful understudy, who must be kept from failing outright in Ukraine. Hence the compliment of a visit and hints of military support.

For the second — posing as peacemaker — Beijing last month published a highfalutin “Global Security Initiative Concept,” followed by 12 theses for a “Political Settlement of the Ukraine Crisis.” Xi also picked up some diplomatic street cred recently when China brokered a detente in an unrelated conflict, the one between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Xi’s third objective — to prevent World War III or nuclear escalation — is shared by the U.S. and its partners. Here Xi, with his sway over Putin, can play a helpful role.

It’s the fourth objective — the definition of sovereignty and integrity — where things get complicated. Xi wants the world to stipulate who is and isn’t sovereign. And he places Taiwan in the latter category. Formally, Beijing and Taipei agree that there’s only one China, disagreeing “only” over its official name and government. Even the U.S. hews to a “one-China policy.” So whenever Xi stresses the words “sovereignty” or “territorial integrity,” he’s glancing at Washington and telegraphing: “Stay out of our business, in our province of Taiwan.”

That same respect for territorial integrity should therefore make Xi condemn Putin’s invasion and side with Ukraine. The country has been independent and sovereign since 1991, and (unlike Taiwan) is a member of the United Nations. On paper, Russia recognizes Ukraine too. In 1994, Moscow even gave Kyiv assurances over its integrity and security in return for the Ukrainians giving up their Soviet-era nuclear warheads.

But China hasn’t denounced Putin’s attack. This omission exposes Xi as a hypocrite rather than an honest broker. After papering over the first point in his own peace plan — territorial integrity — he has no credibility in pushing the others, from “ceasing hostilities” to “resuming peace talks.”

Writing in a Chinese newspaper before Xi’s visit, Putin has signaled that for talks to start, Ukraine would have to accept Russia’s illegal annexations of Ukrainian territory. If Xi cajoles Zelenskyy into negotiations on that basis, the Chinese leader clearly doesn’t believe in sovereignty at all. Talking would amount to capitulation in the face of aggression.

So how should Zelenskyy answer the phone? He has some experience with haughty superpower strongmen trying to manipulate him. In 2019, it was former U.S. President Donald Trump on the line. Sounding like a Mafia don, Trump attempted to bully Zelenskyy (“I need you to do us a favor though…”) into investigating Joe Biden, Trump’s opponent at the time and ultimate successor. Somehow, Zelenskyy managed to stay diplomatic without giving in.

He’ll need that aplomb again with Xi. Simply rebuffing Chinese overtures is not an option, because Kyiv is fighting not only a physical war but also a contest of narratives to win moral, economic and military support across the world. And from the Global South to Putin sympathizers in the West, too many people with influence would be ready to hand Putin a propaganda victory.

Zelenskyy should instead recognize that Xi is really after sound bites that make him look good. So the Ukrainian president should give him some, but focus on point one of Xi’s own peace plan. During the call, Zelenskyy should insist on his country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity as the basis of all subsequent talks, and get his Chinese counterpart to nod along. After all, it’s simply what Beijing is urging, is it not?

If Xi’s overture is only a bluff, let Zelenskiy call it. If it has substance, let’s find out and build on that.

Andreas Kluth is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics. A former editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for the Economist, he is author of “Hannibal and Me.”

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