China’s President Xi Jinping is to visit Moscow this week, a visit which has Ukraine and its allies on edge over fears Beijing may ultimately decide to supply its strategic ally with arms, a move that would have a huge effect on the course of the war.
What’s at stake?
Potentially, an awful lot. What has Ukraine so rattled is the possibility that China could announce an escalation in the aid it gives Russia from non-lethal equipment to weapons.
The U.S. has already warned that if this happens, it could be a “game-changer” in the course of the war.
“If they start supplying arms, that would be a serious problem for us,” a senior Ukrainian official said in early March, speaking on condition of anonymity.
What does China currently give Russia?
Russia has repeatedly requested arms from China, but as far as is known, Beijing has balked.
China has, however, provided non-lethal equipment such as flak jackets and helmets, according to U.S. intelligence sources.
Last month the U.S. accused China of mulling the possibility of changing their position and sending weapons.
“We’re confident that the Chinese leadership is considering the provision of lethal equipment” to Russia, CIA director William Burns told CBS in February.
According to media reports, this could include ammunition and drones. China has strongly denied the claims.
Has Russia and China’s relationship changed over the last year?
The closest thing Russia has to global superpower support is China, though it is far from definitive or unconditional.
China has walked a delicate and slightly ambiguous line that has at times echoed the Kremlin’s line, referring to the invasion as a “special military operation,” for instance and abstaining from UN votes condemning it.
While China insists on respect for the principle of Ukraine’s territorial integrity, it has also given real diplomatic support to Moscow since the full-scale invasion in February last year.
What is Ukraine hoping will happen during Xi’s visit?
“Ukraine’s expectations are at a minimum level: for things not to deteriorate,” Serhiy Solodky, first deputy director of New Europe Center think tank in Kyiv, told AFP.
The topic is so sensitive that Ukrainian authorities do not wish to comment publicly on the trip, planned from Monday to Wednesday during which Russian President Vladimir Putin and Xi are supposed to meet at least twice.
“Ukraine will follow this visit closely,” a senior Ukrainian official told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“For us it is critically important that China maintains its policy of unwavering respect for the territorial integrity of other countries,” the official said, in reference to how Russia has claimed the annexation of five Ukrainian regions.
Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council secretary Oleksiy Danilov has downplayed the likelihood of such supplies, however. “China... will not be complicit with Russia,” he said in an interview published Friday.
Ukrainian analyst Yurii Poita, currently a visiting research fellow at the Taipei-based Institute for National Defense and Security Research, also sees such supplies as unlikely at this stage. “We are not expecting supplies of Chinese tanks, aviation or multiple launch rocket systems in the short term,” he told AFP.
If China doesn’t announce new weapons supplies, what will it announce?
For the moment, China is in fact seeking to position itself as a possible mediator. In late February, Beijing published a 12-point position paper calling for Moscow and Kyiv to hold talks.
But contrary to claims from Ukraine and Western powers, it does not mention the withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukrainian territory.
It also criticizes “unilateral” sanctions imposed on Russia. Western countries rejected the document but Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, anxious not to irritate Beijing, said “we need to work with China.”
Do China and Ukraine talk to each other?
Despite sporadic conversations between China and Ukraine’s foreign ministers, Zelensky has not spoken to Xi since the start of the Russian invasion, while saying publicly he would like to.
“Zelensky has been trying to communicate with Xi since August,” but “China isn’t picking up,” said Poita.
According to U.S. media, there could be such a conversation after the Chinese president’s visit to Moscow, but “no breakthrough will happen,” Poita predicted.
Both economically and geopolitically “Russia is very important for China, much more important than Ukraine,” which Beijing sees as the “Russian sphere of influence, like a gray zone” between the East and West, he added.
Kyiv has “never really developed a policy on China” and has not had an ambassador to Beijing for two years, Solodky said, and therefore, “there’s no point in hoping that China will suddenly hear us.”
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