By Keith Bradsher
President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil met in Beijing late last week with China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, and the two leaders declared in a joint statement that negotiation was “the only viable way out of the crisis in Ukraine.”
In the statement, they avoided the words “invasion” or “war” and offered few specifics about how to bring Russia or Ukraine to the table after more than a year of war. At the same time, Lula called for China’s territorial integrity to be respected with regards to Taiwan, a similar stance to the one French President Emmanuel Macron took last weekend after he met with Xi in China.
The joint statement underscored the delicate lines that China and Brazil have tried to chart on the war in Ukraine: Each has refused to take an explicit side, has called for peace talks and has preserved business ties with Russia. Beijing, in particular, has aligned itself with Moscow in countering American influence abroad and what Xi calls a U.S. campaign to prevent China’s rise.
The careful positioning by Xi and Lula stands against the backdrop of Beijing’s worsening relations with Washington on a range of issues, and as China wages a diplomatic campaign to raise its stature — and diminish that of the United States — in Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America.
U.S. and some European officials and have been critical of China’s 12-point outline of issues that should be considered in a peace agreement, because China has not suggested that Russian forces must withdraw from occupied Ukrainian territory as part of any deal.
There have been no known peace talks between Russia and Ukraine in the past 12 months, and each side has ruled out a cease-fire based on the current battlefield conditions. On Friday, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law that is set to create a system for electronic draft notices, and to make it more difficult to avoid a draft.
In contrast to its lack of details about Ukraine, Brazil and China’s joint statement was direct about the territorial integrity of China, which was defined to include Taiwan, a self-ruled island democracy over which mainland China claims sovereignty.
“The Chinese side expressed great appreciation in this regard,” the relevant passage of the statement concluded.
Lula arrived in Beijing this week with powerful incentives to accommodate China’s interests. In recent weeks, the Brazilian leader has suggested that China should be part of a global effort to bring about peace talks, arguing that countries not directly involved in the conflict are better positioned to mediate the negotiations.
“Brazil as a country is more and more in line with the Chinese narrative,” said Moritz Rudolf, a specialist in China’s foreign policy at Yale Law School.
China has not condemned Russia’s invasion, and Xi remains closely aligned with Putin, visiting Moscow last month. Chinese officials say that Beijing is not on Moscow’s side in the war, and that it will not send weapons for Russia to use in Ukraine, but Chinese state media has parroted Kremlin claims blaming NATO for starting the conflict.
China has meanwhile continued high-level meetings with Russian officials, beyond Xi’s trip to Moscow. Its Ministry of National Defense announced Friday that the country’s defense minister, Li Shangfu, would travel to Moscow on Sunday for a four-day trip.
Brazil has criticized Russia’s invasion in carefully worded statements, but its position is complicated by its reliance on Russia for about one-quarter of its fertilizer imports, which are crucial to Brazil’s enormous agriculture industry. Lula has also suggested that Ukraine’s president and NATO share some blame for the war, and he has resisted calls to send weapons to Ukraine.
Recently leaked Pentagon documents suggest that Ukraine is increasingly desperate for arms to hold back Russian troops, and in particular needs the kind of air defenses that Brazil can supply. European nations have moved to send more advanced weapons — the German government on Thursday approved a Polish request to export five MiG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine — but with Western stockpiles diminished, Ukraine and its allies have put pressure on some nations that have avoided getting involved to send help.
Colombia and Argentina, which like Brazil are led by leftists, have refused to send weapons to Ukraine, with their leaders arguing that they will not take sides in the war.
But some of the leaked U.S. intelligence documents indicate that Ecuador’s right-wing government in recent months considered sending Soviet-designed MI-17 helicopters to Ukraine, a move supported by the United States.
Ecuador would have been the first Latin American country to send weapons to Ukraine, according to the documents. It was not clear from the documents whether Ecuador followed through. The potential transfer was first reported by Ecuadorean media in January.
Ecuador’s Foreign Ministry on Thursday denied any negotiations with Ukraine, saying in a statement that a “donation of military goods and supplies is not mentioned in the Ecuadorean legislation, so an operation of these characteristics would be impossible.”
Lula introduced the idea of a peace group formed by such countries, and recently told Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy that he would discuss the idea with Xi, making Lula the latest in a string of leaders offering a vision for possible negotiations.
Brazil is Russia’s largest buyer of fertilizer, purchasing roughly $1.9 billion in chemicals from Russia in 2019, although Russia’s fertilizer industry is still dwarfed by its oil and gas exports. Although its energy business with Europe has dwindled under Western sanctions, Russia has increased its trade on this front with nations including China and India, which has made up for shortfalls in Russia’s energy business.
Lula’s visit to China is part of an effort to repair relations that had suffered under Brazil’s previous president, Jair Bolsonaro. Bringing Xi his thoughts on a potential path to peace for Ukraine has put Brazil back into the geopolitical conversation after Bolsonaro’s contentious and isolationist administration left office.