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China defends Ukraine stance ahead of Switzerland peace summit

Europe
 A Swiss flag is pictured in front of the Burgenstock Resort where the Summit on Peace in Ukraine will take place June 15 and 16, in Lucerne, Switzerland, May 28, 2024. [Reuters]

China is pushing back against criticism by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy this week, denying claims it is pressuring countries not to attend next weekend’s peace conference in Switzerland and putting forward its own peace plan for the Ukraine war.

After Zelenskyy accused China of “working hard” to prevent countries from participating in the summit at the Shangri-La Dialogue on June 2, Beijing denied the Ukrainian president’s allegation Monday, saying Beijing remains “firmly committed to promoting talks for peace” and hopes the summit would not be “used to create bloc confrontation.”

“Not attending it does not mean not supporting peace,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning told reporters Monday.

“China has never sat idly by or fueled the flames, still less profiteered from the conflict. Instead, we have worked relentlessly for a cease-fire, and this has been highly commended by various parties, including Russia and Ukraine,” she added.

Apart from pushing back against Zelenskyy’s criticism, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi also put forward a Chinese peace plan Tuesday.

“China believes that the world now needs to make more objective, balanced, positive, and constructive voices on the Ukraine crisis,” he told a joint press conference Tuesday with Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan.

Wang pointed to “the six common understandings on political settlement of the Ukraine Crisis,” a document jointly issued by China and Brazil last month, as Beijing’s plan to facilitate the peace process for the Ukraine war.

“In just one week, 45 countries from five continents have responded positively to the 'six common understandings' in different ways,” Wang said, noting that China will decide whether to join the “many summits” around the world independently.

Some analysts say Beijing’s reluctance to join the Switzerland session, which Zelenskyy said during a press conference in Singapore will be attended by 106 countries and at least 70 heads of state, is an attempt to avoid being attacked during the conference for supporting Russia.

“Beijing prefers to avoid this conference and instead, proposes its own vision to demonstrate that it is still committed to promoting peace,” Zhiqun Zhu, an expert on Chinese foreign policy at Bucknell University, told VOA in a written response.

Other experts say Beijing also sees many Western countries that plan to attend the conference in Switzerland, including the United States, as lacking the sincerity to resolve the Ukraine war peacefully.

“Beijing thinks Western countries that are attending the summit are not sincerely pro-peace,” said Temur Umarov, a fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center, adding that China says its vision for resolving the Ukraine conflict, which is through a peace process that should involve both Ukraine and Russia, is not compatible with that put forward by the West.

“Beijing claims that the West is not sincere [about resolving the Ukraine War] and that there is a dual agenda in the West’s peace conference,” he told VOA by phone.

Shift in Ukraine’s view of China

While Beijing continues to portray itself as a neutral actor in the Ukraine war, Zelenskyy’s rare public criticism of China reflects a shift in Ukraine’s view of China. During a press conference at the Shangri-La Dialogue, Zelenskyy said it is unfortunate that China “is an instrument in the hands of Russian President Vladimir Putin.”

Some analysts say Zelenskyy’s comments in Singapore show that Ukraine’s initial hope that China would be neutral in the war is diminishing.

“One might say that there were some hopes in Kyiv’s leadership that Beijing would be neutral with regard to the war, [but] these hopes are now gone,” said Volodymyr Dubovyk, director of the Center for International Studies at the Odesa Mechnikov National University in Ukraine.

While the shift in Zelenskyy’s tone toward China is notable, Dubovyk told VOA it is unclear whether this will have a lasting impact on Ukraine-China relations.

“One might safely forecast that Beijing’s entanglement with Russia is only going to deepen, thus antagonizing Ukraine, yet China may still come [up] with a certain peace plan that would be less pro-Russian and more balanced,” he said.

Following the spat between Beijing and Kyiv, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Sun Weidong and Ukrainian First Deputy Foreign Minister Andrii Sybiha held political consultations in Beijing on Wednesday regarding the war and bilateral relations.

While Sun reiterated Beijing’s commitment to advance exchanges with Kyiv, Sybiha urged China to take part in the summit, arguing that Beijing could “make a practical contribution to achieving a just and lasting peace in Ukraine.”

Umarov said Ukraine hopes to secure China’s participation in the summit because of Beijing’s influence in the world and over Russia.

“The way to legitimize the summit is to have as many participants as possible, [but] I doubt Beijing will change its position on the war in Ukraine,” he told VOA.

As Zelenskyy keeps urging countries to join the session, Zhu said he thinks China’s absence would reduce the importance of the conference.

“With the absence of Russia and China, the summit’s significance will be reduced,” he told VOA.

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