China has sent its Special Representative for Eurasian Affairs Li Hui on a “shuttle diplomacy” tour, visiting Russia, Belgium, Poland, Ukraine, Germany and France.

This is not Li’s first diplomatic visit to resolve what China has called the “Ukraine crisis,” but a revival of efforts, with Russia’s full-scale invasion entering its third year raising questions as to the true intention behind Beijing’s latest move.

Another peculiarity lies in Kyiv’s continued attempts to rally for Beijing’s support despite the less-than-stellar relationship between the two.

Who is Li Hui?

Li’s diplomatic career dates back to the Soviet era, and he shares a close relationship with Russia.

The 70-year-old diplomat was born in the Heilongjiang province – whose name is derived from Heilong Jiang, the Chinese name for the Amur River in Russia – that borders Russia’s Far East. He began his career in 1975 as a staff member at the Soviet-European Department of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

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Following the collapse of the USSR in 1991, Li served as the first secretary of the embassy in Russia and later as the first secretary and counselor of the embassy in Kazakhstan. After that, he became the director of the Eurasian Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Li assumed the position of deputy foreign minister in 2008 before becoming China's ambassador to Russia for 10 years between 2009 and 2019. He was awarded a “Medal of Friendship” personally by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

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China’s position

Officially, Beijing has been calling for “an end to hostilities” in its 12-point peace formula for Ukraine without vocally supporting or denouncing either Kyiv or Moscow.

However, its call for “an end to unilateral sanctions,” as well as describing Western military aid for Ukraine as “adding fuel to the fire” without doing the same for North Korea and Iran – two nations supplying Moscow with weapons – could be interpreted as a subtle, passive form of support for Russia. 

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There have also been incidents of Chinese civilian manufacturers supplying Russian forces with offroad vehicles, as well as reports of US-made microchips being re-exported to Russia through Hong Kong. The former British colony in China has experienced increasingly draconian laws imposed by Beijing, though there has never been substantial proof that Beijing was directly involved in the supplies.

Even though Beijing has thus far refused to sanction Russia – which has arguably been Russia’s lifeline to continuing trade – there have been hiccups in the financial sector.

In January, Bloomberg reported that China’s state-owned banks had begun to restrict funding to Russian clients after Washington authorized secondary sanctions on financial firms that helped Moscow invade Ukraine.

Compared to the mutually warm reception between Russian and Chinese officials, the Chinese-Ukrainian relationship can be described as “okay” at best.

President Volodymyr Zelensky had his first phone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping more than one year after the full-scale invasion started, and there has been no in-person meeting between the two over the last two years.

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In comparison, Putin and Xi have called each other “old friends” upon meeting in Beijing.

Li’s visits

Li’s first attempt to mediate peace talks in Ukraine came in May 2023 after Zelensky’s phone call with Xi.

However, this only resulted in more formalities, with Kyiv praising Beijing’s “respect for territorial integrity and UN Charter” and Moscow praising Beijing’s efforts at “resolving the conflict through diplomatic means.”

Bombs continued dropping, and rifles continued firing.

But this time, the changing battlefield situation in Ukraine might have prompted China to give it another shot.

Dmytro Yefremov, an expert at the Ukrainian Association of Sinologists, told Kyiv Post: “Having made such an exploration last year, the Chinese side realized that none of the parties were ready for any negotiations yet. Recently they saw the Ukrainian withdrawal from Avdiivka and some disappearance of US assistance to Ukraine.”

Yefremov added that such a situation “is likely to be seen by Beijing as a new opportunity for a Chinese special representative to come again because they are interested in ending the war”; furthermore that “Ukraine currently looks weaker for them and would probably be more accommodating to Chinese proposals.”

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Yefremov believes Beijing’s peace efforts to be motivated by Western pressures, and that it likely does not perceive Ukraine’s peace formula as “realistic.” 

“At the same time, Beijing is under constant pressure from the Europeans, and less from the Americans, to use its influence on Russia, pushing it to end the war. However, Beijing will use this influence only if it becomes the main beneficiary of the negotiations.

“Meanwhile, the Chinese side did not make any public statements about Zelensky’s peace formula either in Jeddah or through the speakers of its Foreign Ministry. So, there were no signs that they considered the Ukrainian peace formula as serious or realistic,” Yefremov said.

Ukraine’s rally for Chinese support

Kyiv has also been calling for Chinese participation in peace talks despite Beijing’s close relationship with Moscow, which Yefremov believes is aimed at helping to consolidate Ukraine’s position and potentially influence other nations.

“So if Beijing talks with Kyiv about peace in Ukraine without Russia, it looks like China supports Ukraine's position, even if Beijing does not communicate it in any way.

“Therefore, it is important for Kyiv to obtain any communication with the Chinese side.

“For example, the meeting between [Ukrainian Foreign Minister] Dmytro Kuleba and [Chinese Foreign Minister] Wang Yi at the Munich Security Conference was a very big success in Ukraine’s diplomacy, as well as some sign that China recognizes the validity of the Ukrainian position,” Yefremov said.

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He added that the Global South could potentially shift its stance on Ukraine if Kyiv is able to persuade Beijing to voice its support.

“By taking a certain position different from the American one, China creates convenience for them in the sense of the possibility to join its position, claiming that they do not support any side of the ‘crisis.’ They can appeal to the Chinese position as such, which also has the right to exist and to be discussed.

“If China were entirely pro-Ukrainian as the US is pro-Ukrainian, then any diplomatic pressure on developing countries would push them to adopt a pro-Ukrainian position more quickly,” Yefremov added.

However, given Beijing’s historically cold stance on the Ukraine peace summits and its diplomatic race with Washington, the latest visit is unlikely to yield any results.

“The Chinese side considers Ukraine as a country that is completely dependent on the USA, so the dialog should be conducted with the US. Therefore, it is not interesting for Beijing to talk with Ukraine as a separate equal nation because it does not want to recognize Ukraine as a country that can affect international relations.

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“The fact that the Chinese participated in only one of four meetings shows that they do not want to participate in this format.

“And they are trying to distance themselves from it for two reasons: firstly, not to offend the Russian Federation, and secondly, since all these formats are held under the US leadership, for China to be present at such events means supporting its main opponent,” Yefremov explained.

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Comments (2)

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Rick Dosiak
This comment contains spoilers. Click here if you want to read.

There is much more in Ukraine than Russia anyway. I would suggest China drops Russia and looks seriously at Ukraine for just about anything including food.

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Rheinhardt Wilheim
This comment contains spoilers. Click here if you want to read.

this envoy li k hui lo is here only to help the rasshists now that they suffering huge losses (Suckers 34 and Sucker 35, landingships, corvettes, AWACS, and about 1000men a day)
this envoy li k hui lo is here to safe face vladolf putler
this envoy li k hui lo is here to rescue vladolf putler from a precarious situation
the chinese, like the rasshits, dont care about human lives, look how many chinese they have killed in the 60s over 60 million chinese and how they got about in Tibet and now with the Ughurs and south chines sea
abusing Ukraine in there fight with USA

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