Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told the South China Morning Post on Thursday that he would like to discuss his country’s war against Russia with the leader of Russia’s closest ally, Xi Jinping, “directly,” and invited China to help rebuild Ukraine once the war is over.
Zelensky’s discussion with the Morning Post, a Hong Kong newspaper, was the first with an Asian news outlet since Russia escalated its eight-year-old war against Ukraine into a full-scale invasion in February. Zelensky used the opportunity to request a personal discussion with Xi, a genocidal communist dictator who is largely bankrolling the invasion of Ukraine through large purchases of cheap Russian oil and gas.
Ukraine is a member of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a global program to trap poor countries in predatory loans to China that they cannot afford. The loans are nominally meant to pay China for massive infrastructure projects. China was also Ukraine’s top trading partner prior to the war. Last year, Zelensky said he hoped that Ukraine would become a “bridge to Europe” for Chinese influence in his last conversation with Xi.
While welcoming Chinese financing and failing to criticize China for maintaining a strong alliance with Russia throughout this year’s invasion, Zelensky has been slightly more critical of the Chinese Communist Party than his predecessors, unilaterally sanctioning the world’s second-largest economy last year after a Chinese company tried to buy a key Ukrainian defense corporation.
In conversation with the Morning Post, Zelensky expressed hope that China would help “put the Russian Federation [in] a certain place” economically and said he would personally like China to “review its attitude” regarding Russia.
“It’s a very powerful state. It’s a powerful economy … So (it) can politically, economically influence Russia. And China is [also a] permanent member of the U.N. Security Council,” the newspaper quoted Zelensky as saying in a 40-minute interview. “This is a war on our territory, they came to invade. China, as a big and powerful country, could come down and sort of put the Russian Federation [in] a certain place.”
The Ukrainian president reportedly expressed frustration with the inaction regarding the invasion of his country on the part of the Security Council, which China serves on as a permanent member with veto powers.
“Why should we have the Security Council at all, if any country … or several countries in the world, could simply decide to violate the rules militarily?” he asked.
Zelensky noted that Xi had visited Ukraine personally in the past and said he believed that a direct conversation with him — rather than Chinese diplomats — could benefit Kyiv.
“I would like to talk directly. I had one conversation with [President] Xi Jinping that was a year ago,” Zelensky recalled. “Since the beginning of the large-scale aggression on February 24, we have asked officially for a conversation, but we (haven’t had) any conversation with China even though I believe that would be helpful.”
Zelensky also expressed hope that China would play a role in the reconstruction of Ukraine once the war ended, inducing “China, Chinese businesses” to enter the Ukrainian market.
“I really would like the whole world to [unite] over this process. It’s very hard for us to overcome this,” the president was quoted as saying.
Zelensky’s comments to the Morning Post echo remarks he made on Wednesday in an event with students in Australia, according to a report in the government outlet Ukrinform.
“Today, I would like China to join the united international position regarding Russia’s tyranny against Ukraine. I would like them to. It hasn’t happened so far,” Zelensky was quoted as saying. “China is standing aside. Today, China is balancing, retaining neutrality. I will say honestly, this neutrality is much better than China joining Russia.”
Zelensky emphasized it was “important” to Kyiv for China not to “help” Russia, claiming that Beijing was attempting to remain neutral. Zelensky similarly justified China’s role in the war – nominally not supporting Russia but in practice keeping its economy afloat – in comments in May.
“China has chosen the policy of staying away. At the moment, Ukraine is satisfied with this policy. It is better than helping the Russian Federation in any case,” Zelensky said in a message to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
Xi Jinping has largely focused on promoting Chinese business and the BRI more specifically through the past year. To the extent that he has commented on the Ukrainian war, the Kremlin claimed in June that the dictator told his Russian counterpart Putin that he affirmed the “legitimacy” of Russia’s invasion. Chinese officials neither confirmed nor denied the claim.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying addressed the request for a conversation with Xi Jinping during her regular briefing on Thursday, offering little clarity.
“China maintains close communication with Ukraine and other parties of the Ukraine crisis,” Hua said, without elaborating.
The vast majority of Hua’s time on the podium on Thursday – and every other briefing this week – was dedicated to condemning the United States after Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) visited Taipei, Taiwan, this week, a sovereign nation China falsely claims as its own. China is currently engaging in missile firings and an unofficial blockade of the neighboring country, claiming that Pelosi being present anywhere in Taiwan is a violation of Chinese sovereignty. China has no legal authority over Taiwan and the country has never in its history been governed by any regime based in Beijing.
Russia’s upgrade of its invasion of Ukraine, which began with the colonization of Ukraine’s Crimea region in 2014, prompted many comparisons around the world between that situation and a potential Chinese invasion of Taiwan. Zelensky has not remarked extensively on the comparison but, in an interview in June, urged the world to defend Taiwan before the invasion begins, rather than extend support in the aftermath, as it had done with Ukraine.
“We must not leave them behind at the mercy of another country which is more powerful in financial terms, in territorial terms and in terms of equipment,” Zelensky told the Washington Post. “And therefore, if there is a way out diplomatically, we need to use the diplomatic way. But it must be a preemptive way, not the one that comes after the war has started.”
The Chinese Communist Party largely condemned the Washington Post for interviewing Zelensky following the publication of those comments without personally attacking Zelensky.