China’s Ukraine envoy called on other governments Friday to “stop sending weapons to the battlefield” and appealed for peace talks at a time when Washington and its European allies are ramping up supplies of missiles and tanks to Ukrainian forces trying to recapture Russian-occupied territory.
Li Hui said Russian and Ukrainian officials were open to peace negotiations, but he gave no indication they were any closer to happening.
Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s government says it is neutral and wants to serve as a mediator but has supported Moscow politically. Foreign analysts saw little chance of progress from Li’s visits to the countries because neither side is ready to stop fighting, but sending an envoy gave Beijing an opportunity to expand its global diplomatic role.
“China believes that if we really want to put an end to war, to save lives and realize peace, it is important for us to stop sending weapons to the battlefield, or else the tensions will only spiral up,” Li told reporters.
“China’s goal is promoting peace talks and a cessation of hostilities.”
China has good relations with both Russia and Ukraine, and has leverage as one of the biggest export markets for both. Xi’s decision to send an envoy was welcomed by the Ukrainian government but prompted questions about China’s motives after Beijing declared it had a “no limits’ friendship with the Kremlin ahead of the February 2022 invasion.
Beijing released a proposed peace plan in February, but Ukraine’s allies insist that President Vladimir Putin must first withdraw Russian forces, something Beijing has not discussed.
Li repeated Beijing’s call for respect for the “territorial integrity of all countries” but gave no indication China was pressing Moscow to give back captured territory. Putin’s forces occupy the Crimean Peninsula and parts of eastern Ukraine with mainly Russian-speaking populations.
“China advocates for a balanced and just way to address security concerns,” said Li, a former ambassador to Moscow.
One of the few concrete proposals China has made is calling for parties to stop supplying weapons to the battlefield – which, in practice, largely refers to efforts by the U.S. and its NATO allies to arm Ukraine’s self-defense efforts.
European governments promised Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy missiles, tanks, and drones when he visited Britain, France, and Germany in mid-May. Ukraine has received Patriot anti-missile systems from the United States, Germany, and the Netherlands. The United States, Spain, Germany, and France have pledged a total of 300 tanks.
U.S. President Joe Biden earlier warned Xi of unspecified consequences if Beijing provided arms or military supplies to support Russia’s invasion. China is buying more Russian oil and gas, which helps to shore up the Kremlin’s export revenue after the United States, Europe, and Japan cut off most purchases, but it appears to be avoiding anything that might trigger Western sanctions.
Li, who also visited Poland, France, Germany, and the European Union headquarters, said Beijing was ready to send a second delegation to discuss a possible “political settlement” but gave no indication what China’s next move might be.
Li referred several times to outsiders “adding fuel to the fire” and making comments that “exacerbate the situation.” He didn’t name any party but used language Chinese officials invoke when criticizing U.S. dominance in global affairs.
“Who is the real troublemaker in the world and the real security threat in the world? The global community has a keen understanding of that,” Li said.
Li defended Beijing’s “strategic partnership of coordination” with Russia as more beneficial to the world than other governments he didn’t name.
“Compared with some countries’ actions, clinging to Cold War mentality, ganging up with other countries, creating small circles for bloc confrontation and carrying out hegemonic bullying actions, these are completely different practices,” he said.
Li criticized a report by The Wall Street Journal, citing unidentified officials, that he had proposed a ceasefire that would leave Russia in control of Ukrainian territory. He rejected that as “not in line with the facts” and suggested whoever spread that story might want to sabotage peace efforts.
“It is a move to sow discord between China and Ukraine,” Li said.
Li also called for steps to protect the Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, adding to appeals by the International Atomic Energy Agency this week for both sides to commit to preventing any attack on the facility to avoid a “catastrophic incident.”
Fighting on seven occasions has disrupted power supplies.
“All parties need to shoulder their responsibility for ensuring the safety of nuclear facilities and to cool down the situation,” Li said.