China to send special envoy to seek ‘political settlement’ to Ukraine war

China will send a special envoy to Ukraine, Russia and other countries to discuss a “political settlement to the Ukraine crisis”, the Chinese foreign ministry said on Friday.

Li Hui, a former Chinese ambassador to Moscow, will visit Ukraine, Poland, France, Germany and Russia from Monday, spokesperson Wang Wenbin announced at a press conference.

“Sending a representative . . . is another way of China demonstrating its commitment and efforts to promoting peace talks, and fully shows that China stands firmly on the side of peace,” said Wang.

Li’s visit comes as Ukraine prepares its spring counter-offensive, whose results will influence the shape of any peace negotiations between Kyiv and Moscow, and as the EU starts to discuss a new policy towards China.

It also follows a nearly hour-long phone call between presidents Xi Jinping of China and Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine last month that the latter described as “long and meaningful”. Xi told Zelenskyy during the call that he would soon send a special representative to talk to “all parties” to seek a “political settlement”.

Xi has called Russian president Vladimir Putin at least five times since the war in Ukraine began, and the two leaders met in Moscow in March.

Beijing has laid out a 12-point proposal to end the war. It calls on the warring sides to resume peace talks and respect national sovereignty but does not include many of Ukraine’s key demands for peace — including that Russian forces must first withdraw from Ukrainian territory before any negotiations.

Ukraine’s foreign ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Li’s upcoming visit.

Yu Jie, a senior research fellow on China at Chatham House, said Li’s visit “aims to send a signal that China is keen to play a mediation role rather than putting any substantive proposals on the table”.

Yu said China’s audience was not the west but the “large parts of developing countries who do not see this war eye to eye as the collective west does”.

China’s ambivalence on the war in Ukraine, which it does not refer to as an invasion, has troubled its relationships with European countries. Beijing’s ambassador to France caused an uproar last month by questioning the sovereignty of post-Soviet states, in remarks that the foreign ministry later contradicted.

In a frosty meeting with his counterpart in Berlin on Tuesday, China’s foreign minister Qin Gang threatened countermeasures if the EU continued with a proposal to impose sanctions on Chinese companies allegedly supplying military dual-use components to Russia.

“The Ukraine crisis continues to escalate, spillovers continue to appear, and calls from the international community for ceasefire and de-escalation grow louder and louder,” Wang said on Friday.

Li was China’s ambassador to Russia for 10 years to 2019. He is a vice-minister of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and is its special representative on Eurasian affairs.

Additional reporting by Maiqi Ding

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