How will China balance Russian and European relations after the Swiss Peace Summit?

Press Conference of Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy at the Swiss Peace Summit. Screenshot from UATV's YouTube Channel. Fair Use.

The Ukraine Peace Summit, hosted by Switzerland between June 15 and 16, concluded with a joint declaration calling for Ukraine's territorial integrity as the basis of a peace deal. 

Though 78 countries signed the declaration, Russia was uninvited ahead of the summit, China and many African countries were absent, Brazil, India and South Africa from the BRICS alliance, and a few other countries, including Indonesia, Mexico, and Saudi Arabia, refused to sign. They maintained that excluding Russia would undermine the peace process — a position laid out before the Swiss peace meeting by China and Brazil, which proposed an international peace conference recognized and attended by Russia and Ukraine to discuss “all peace plans.” 

If the alternative peace conference were to take place, China would be the most likely host, as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had endorsed the arrangement. 

Prior to the Swiss talk, both the US and the EU had lobbied hard for China to attend the meeting. Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy agreed to avoid discussing sensitive issues such as the withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine territory and confine the agenda to nuclear security, food security, and other humanitarian issues, which were included in China and Brazil's proposal.

Yet, China insisted on Russia’s presence for its attendance, and reportedly, China had given signals to a number of developing countries that the Swiss meeting would “prolong the war.” Against such a background, Zelenskyy accused China of helping Russia to sabotage the peace summit in early June. He also challenged China's “neutral stand” by revealing that the Ukraine intelligence found “elements of Russia’s weaponry come from China,” China denied the allegation. 

While China continued calling for an alternative peace talk and claimed that more than 100 countries support its peace proposal, Russia and Ukraine do not have any common ground for the talk.

Ahead of the Swiss Summit on June 13, the G7 finalized a deal to provide Ukraine with a USD 50 billion fund, using Russia’s frozen assets in their countries. On the eve of the Summit, Russian President Vladimir Putin presented an ultimatum by stating that Russia would end the war only if Kyiv agreed to drop its plan to join NATO and hand over four eastern and southern provinces to Russia. The Swiss Summit then made the declaration that Ukraine's territorial integrity was the basis of the peace deal.

After the Swiss Summit, Zelenskyy urged China to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity and stressed that Ukraine's sole enemy is Putin and would like China to be a friend:

We respect China and have always respected the territorial integrity and sovereignty of your country. All we wanted was for China to respect Ukraine's territorial integrity and our sovereignty. We respect your people, your values, your lives and your choices. And we would like China to do the same, nothing more. We would like it to do no less.[…] As for China, Ukraine has never said that China is our enemy. […] I always say that Ukraine has only one enemy – Putin. As for friends, I believe that friends are those who help when things are difficult. And I would like China to be a friend to Ukraine.

China was left in an embarrassing and conflicting position. Major Chinese state-owned media outlets, such as the China Daily, did not report on the Swiss Summit or Zelenskyy's speech. However, a few online state-funded outlets, such as The Paper, did share Zelenskyy’s post-Summit speech video clip on Weibo, highlighting the part that Ukraine’s wish for China’s help. But in the video's comment thread, most responses were rather antagonistic against Ukraine, with a few pointing fingers at NATO, calling it China’s enemy. 

A nationalist influencer, “Military Knife 007” (战刀007), who has 1.3 million followers on Weibo, spelt out his frustration about Zelenskyy's speech:


On June 16, Zelenskyy blamed China for being absence in the Summit in a press conference and stated that Beijing could help Ukraine. Damn it, why it should offer help? China helping the U.S to bring down Russia and letting China become the next target? He is insane! Fooling people with talks about justice and peace. Between states, there is only interest. When the Eight-Nation Alliance [in 1900 during the Qing Dynasty] and Japan invaded China [during the Second WII], where was justice and peace back then? 

Hu Xijin, the top influencer at the Chinese state-owned Global Times, also addressed China’s dilemma on Weibo in a long post:







The US and NATO are so overbearing. They keep expanding their influence to the east, and Russia is standing up to them. Would you like to see that happen? I would, especially in the beginning.

Was it right for Russia to annex four Ukrainian states into Russian territory? I don't think it's right. It's overdoing it. It's not in line with international law. Sovereignty and territorial integrity should not be jeopardized.

The US and the West jointly sanctioned Russia and asked China to join in. Can China join in? Of course not! Russia and the West abhor each other over NATO’s expansion, and the Ukraine War is just an explosion of such tension. China should remain neutral in such a twisted life-and-death fight.

Ukraine's sovereignty is important, but it should be restored by the U.S. and the West, who have incited Ukraine to hate and fight Russia. The West can compromise with Russia or defeat Russia (only that it is a nuclear power); China should promote a peaceful solution and call for the establishment of a European order in which all parties feel secure. If both sides have to fight to the end, China can do nothing.

Should China maintain a legitimate China-Russia comprehensive strategic partnership? Of course, it should. It is a major strategic interest for China. The north of China [Russia] is a nuclear power, and maintaining friendship and stable relations with the regime is of the utmost importance. This cannot be replaced by other international goals.

But for the sake of Sino-Russian relations, should we give up everything else? Certainly not. We should pay attention to the feelings of the West, especially Europe, and strike a balance between Russia and China and China's relations with the West. Currently, the two sides are highly hostile. This balance is somewhat difficult. But that's okay. That's how we maintain our neutrality. Let anyone who is unhappy digest it themselves.

Since the outbreak of the Russo-Ukraine War in 2022, Russia and China’s trade reached a new height of over USD 240 billion in 2023, thanks to Western economic sanctions against Russia. The figure was expected to continue surging as the two countries vowed to strengthen their ties. 

Yet, two days after the Swiss Summit and upon “digesting” China’s neutral stand, the head of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg, spoke out against Beijing for “trying to get it both ways” by supporting Russia’s war effort while maintaining relationships with the EU. Stoltenberg also asserted that China's technologies, in particular electronic parts, were found in Russia's missiles and weapons, and hence, Europe had been considering possible economic sanctions against China for its Russian tie. This begs the question: how will China balance its relations between the two powers? 

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