China’s top diplomat is set to discuss the war in Ukraine with senior Russian officials this week, underscoring Beijing’s deepening ties with Moscow that have caused alarm in western capitals.
Wang Yi, China’s most senior foreign policy official, may meet Russian president Vladimir Putin ahead of the conflict’s first anniversary, the Kremlin said on Monday. The announcement comes a day after the US warned that Beijing was “strongly considering” supporting Russia’s sputtering war effort with arms supplies.
“The agenda is obvious and very extensive. We have a lot to talk about,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Monday, according to Interfax.
Wang’s planned visit to Moscow, the first by a senior Chinese official since Putin ordered the invasion, is a stark contrast to Joe Biden’s surprise trip to Kyiv on Monday, where the US president met his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelenskyy and pledged “unwavering support” for its resistance against the Russian offensive.
The visit is the last leg on a European tour — the first since Chinese president Xi Jinping ended China’s three years of isolation under the “zero-Covid” policy late last year — that Wang has used to pitch China as a potential peacemaker in Ukraine and rebuild Beijing’s ties with the west.
Speaking in Budapest on Monday, Wang said China would “gladly work together with other peace-loving countries to bring the current hostilities to a halt as soon as possible”.
But Wang’s conciliatory remarks belie China’s moves to deepen ties with Russia even as the war leaves Putin increasingly isolated internationally.
China has not condemned the invasion, instead cultivating Russia as a useful bulwark in its growing competition with Washington.
Speaking at the Munich Security Conference on Sunday, Wang called the US decision to shoot down a Chinese spy balloon “hysterical and absurd” and defended his country’s ties with Russia, saying Beijing would never allow the US to dictate the countries’ relationship.
China has also criticised western countries for their supplies of advanced weapons to Ukraine and unprecedented economic sanctions against Russia.
Instead, Beijing, which has not joined the sanctions, has helped Moscow offset the damage from the sanctions by ramping up purchases of Russian oil and gas, as well as supplying components to replace blacklisted western imports.
China now accounts for about half of all Russia’s imports, according to customs data tracked by Bruegel, a Brussels-based economic think-tank.
“For Russia, China is the major lifeline that keeps the economy afloat,” said Alexander Gabuev, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He noted that in their new relationship, Moscow was “increasingly junior and subordinated” to Beijing. “There are all sorts of reasons why China wants Russia to stay afloat.”
China’s foreign ministry on Monday declined to comment on Wang’s visit to Moscow. But it repeated that a Chinese paper proposing a political settlement to the “Ukraine crisis” would be published this week to coincide with the war’s first anniversary.
The document would reiterate Xi’s proposals for peace, including respecting the sovereignty of all nations, that nuclear war should never be fought and that civil nuclear facilities should be protected, the foreign ministry said.
Diplomats in Beijing were sceptical that Wang’s visit to Moscow or the proposed peace plan would change the situation in Ukraine. Xi and Putin in December pledged to deepen bilateral ties in what they have described as their “no-limits” partnership, while Russia has offered increasingly vocal support for China’s stance on Taiwan.
Xi had yet to speak directly with Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, they said, making any role for China as a peace interlocutor more difficult.
China denied on Monday that it was considering providing lethal aid to Russia. “It’s the US that continually provides weapons, not us,” said a foreign ministry spokesperson.