Xi, Zelenskyy weigh bilateral phone call

Foreign Affairs

With the Russo-Ukrainian War entering its next phase, Beijing is considering its options and pursuing its own interests on an issue-by-issue basis.

Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Image courtesy of Ukraine Presidential Press Office.

According to Bloomberg, expectations are rising that Xí Jìnpíng 习近平 and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy are planning their first bilateral phone call since the invasion began. A bilateral phone call between the two figures could represent Beijing’s way of telling Moscow to wrap up its “special military operation” in Ukraine.

But prospects for a head-of-state phone call remain uncertain, as EU-China bilateral talks did not appear to provide signs of a diplomatic breakthrough. On Wednesday, EU Foreign Policy Chief Josep Borrell characterized the discussion as a “deaf dialog,” saying that Beijing “didn’t want to talk about Ukraine.”

  • As the war in Ukraine moves into its next phase, it’s not too soon to think about the endgame. Yun Sun and Paul Heer discussed the aftermath of the Russo-Ukrainian War and its potential implications for China, in the Sinica Podcast with Kaiser Kuo.

Foreign Ministry and state media seek to drive a wedge between Europe and the U.S.

After a five-day pause for the Qingming Festival, the Chinese Foreign Ministry resumed press briefings on April 6. In response to a planted question from state broadcaster CCTV, spokesperson (and Wolf Warrior extraordinaire) Zhào Lìjiān 赵立坚 said, “The ongoing war and sanctions have incurred an influx of refugees, capital outflow and energy shortage in Europe, but enabled the U.S. to earn profit and make a fortune.”

Chinese state media also continued to urge Brussels to distance itself from Washington, as a Global Times article argued, “The evolution of NATO over the past 73 years is the history of how the U.S. manipulated and controlled Europe to maintain its hegemony in the continent.”

Another People’s Daily article blamed the U.S. for the crisis, saying that “Washington is willfully driving the train of Ukraine’s future not toward peace, but all speed ahead into a future riddled with more uncertainties and untold suffering.”

Potential pre-invasion Chinese hack of Ukraine?

The Times of London last week reported that China conducted a major cyber operation in the run-up to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. If the cyber operation allegations are true, it casts significant doubt on the narrative that the Chinese political leadership was not informed of the invasion ahead of time. It also suggests that Beijing was willing to provide Moscow with some level of (deniable) support.

Beijing could have used information from any hacks to provide Moscow with critical intelligence on Ukrainian weaknesses. At a minimum, any hacking attempts in the immediate run-up to the invasion would have distracted Ukraine’s cyber defenders at a critical moment, implicitly benefiting Russia.

While the Times reported that the operation was a “cyberattack,” it’s very possible that Beijing’s objectives were observational rather than operational: Chinese security services may have simply been evaluating the skills, processes, and methods of their counterparts while seeking to learn more about the likely course of the war.

However, it’s not clear what, if anything, happened. In comments to the Guardian, the SBU (Ukraine’s chief security service) says it has “nothing to do with the findings of the Times. The Security Service of Ukraine does not currently have such data and no investigation is underway.”

Ukraine’s pursuit of a head-of-state conversation with China is almost certainly an important element to this story.

Caspian Pipeline Consortium oil flows restart

TankerTrackers.com reports that maritime crude oil flows from the Russian-Kazakh Caspian Pipeline Consortium (CPC) export terminal, which is located in Russian territory, have restarted after 10 days of no maritime exports. Moscow shut down the terminal on March 21, claiming that storm damages would take up to two months to repair. More plausibly, Moscow sought to inflict economic pain on Western economies (almost all CPC export volumes flow to European markets) and drive up oil prices in the run-up to the French presidential election.

The shuttering of the CPC terminal also directly and indirectly harmed China’s economic interests, however, and there are some signs that Beijing was displeased with Moscow’s sanctioning of Kazakh crude.

The International Energy Agency (IEA), an international consortium of oil-importing countries, announced on Wednesday that it will release 120 million barrels of crude oil to calm markets amid the invasion of Ukraine. Beijing seems unlikely to release barrels from its own strategic inventories but, if it does, that would send an important signal.

Central Asian states seeking more autonomy from Moscow?

In an article for The National Interest, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev noted Kazakhstan’s close ties with both Russia and Ukraine, but also said, “We respect [Ukraine’s] territorial integrity — as the overwhelming majority of the world does.”

Temur Umarov, a Central Asia analyst at Carnegie Moscow, noted that statements from both the Tajik and Chinese foreign ministries highlighted Tajik independence. Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have been drifting into Beijing’s gravitational orbit in recent years. This process will likely accelerate amid the invasion of Ukraine.

Central Asia is a tertiary priority for both China and Russia, but Central Asian states have their own agency and could upset still waters as they navigate between Beijing, Moscow, and Brussels/Washington.