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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Xi and Macron call for Ukraine peace talks, but the path is murky

A resident walks along the road as smoke rises from the site of a Russian rocket strike in an industrial complex in Slovyansk, Ukraine, on March 10, 2023.

By Roger Cohen

President Emmanuel Macron of France and Xi Jinping, China’s top leader, on Thursday appealed for a rapid return to peace talks to end the war in Ukraine, but Xi did not indicate whether he would use his close relationship with Moscow to push Russia to negotiate.

Greeted with great pomp at the flag-bedecked Great Hall of the People, Macron told Xi that he was counting on him “to bring Russia back to reason and everyone back to the negotiating table” on Ukraine.

Xi, flanked by the French leader, went partway toward a positive response. He said that “together with France, we appeal for reason and restraint” in the conflict. China was seeking “a resumption of peace talks as soon as possible,” he said, and, in an apparent nod to Russian concerns over NATO’s expansion eastward, “a European security architecture that is balanced, effective and lasting.”

In what Xi described as “a joint call with France for the international community,” he said that China “appeals for the protection of civilians. Nuclear weapons must not be used, and nuclear war must not be fought.” His statement marked some distance from President Vladimir Putin, who has repeatedly hinted at nuclear warfare and whose forces have routinely targeted civilians.

Two important points were, however, left vague. It was unclear whether Xi might put any pressure on Putin, as Macron requested; and Xi did not commit to any time frame for speaking with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine, who said last month that China could be a “partner” in seeking peace.

There have been no known peace talks between Russia and Ukraine since last April, and each side insists it has no interest in a cease-fire, setting preconditions that are anathema to the other.

Moscow claimed last year to annex four provinces in eastern and southern Ukraine, although its forces do not control all of that territory, and insists that Kyiv must recognize them as Russian. Ukraine’s stated position has been that Russia must withdraw or be driven out of occupied lands — including Crimea, the peninsula Russia illegally annexed in 2014 — before there can be peace talks. Any halt in fighting, Zelenskyy has said, would simply solidify the Kremlin’s control of the area it has seized and reward its aggression.

Before the invasion last year and in the weeks after it, Zelenskyy expressed openness to discussing the status of some of the area claimed by Russia, including Crimea. His position later hardened, but this week, there were mixed signals from his government about whether, beneath its tough public stance, there was some room for negotiation.

If Ukrainian forces recapture enough occupied land in the south to reach the border of Crimea, Kyiv would be willing to discuss the status of the peninsula with Moscow, Andriy Sybiha, the deputy head of Zelenskyy’s office, told The Financial Times. But he later told the BBC that reverting to diplomacy did not mean Ukraine would give up the goal of reclaiming the peninsula. And Tamila Tasheva, Zelenskyy’s envoy on Crimea, told Politico that the only open question on Crimea was whether Russia left voluntarily or by force.

The NATO countries backing Ukraine insist it is up to Kyiv whether and when to negotiate, but many officials within the alliance have said privately — and sometimes publicly — that Ukraine should consider peace talks without achieving all of its goals. Western nations are wary that the war could drag on for years, or that losses on the ground could prompt Putin to escalate.

Sybiha’s comments could be a signal to the allies saying, “Don’t worry, we won’t act rashly,” said François Heisbourg, a French defense expert. “Send us tanks and planes, but we won’t use this stuff in a way that creates a crisis.”

Zelenskyy has taken care not to criticize China and has said he wants to talk with Xi, in hopes that Beijing can use its influence in Russia to Ukraine’s benefit.

Xi last month traveled to Moscow for a warm state visit with Putin, but he has not spoken directly with Zelenskyy since Russia’s full-scale invasion more than a year ago.

Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president who accompanied Macron to Beijing in a show of European unity (even if they did not appear together publicly), told journalists that “President Xi reiterated his willingness to speak when conditions and the time are right” with Zelenskyy. Asked if Xi had given a timeline, she demurred.

Neither Macron nor Xi took questions from journalists Thursday.

Macron told Xi the objective of any negotiation must be “a durable peace that respects internationally recognized borders and avoids all forms of escalation.”

Xi called for parties to “observe the purposes and principles of the U.N. Charter,” which calls for countries to refrain from the “use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.” Yet China has never condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine nor called Putin’s assault on a neighboring state a war.

Beijing would like to drive a wedge between the United States and Europe, a consistent theme during Macron’s visit. Xi, for example, said China supports Macron’s quest for European “strategic autonomy,” shorthand for some European distancing from the United States.

“China considers Europe to be an independent pole in a multipolar world,” Xi said.

It was an explicit sign that he does not view America’s alliance with Europe as a defining feature of the continent in a 21st century that China seeks to shape.

“The China-Europe relationship is not targeted at, subjugated to or controlled by any third party,” Xi said.

A statement from the Chinese Foreign Ministry after Xi held a three-way meeting with Macron and von der Leyen took clear aim at the United States. “Playing up the ‘democracy vs. authoritarianism’ narrative and stoking a new Cold War will only bring division and confrontation to the world,” it said.

Europe’s hard-hit economy needs the Chinese market, and Europe provides major economic opportunities to China that are not readily available in Russia.

Macron, embattled at home over his decision to raise the retirement age to 64, appears to have found in Xi a partner in imagining a new world. Xi borrowed some of the French president’s favorite phrases, speaking of changed “strategic architecture,” freed from “bloc confrontation” and offering European “strategic autonomy.”

The hard part is knowing what all this means, how it might be applied and what place the United States, France’s oldest ally, would have in such a world.

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