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Zelensky outburst shows he has lost the battle for China

Moscow and Kiev are not the only ones at loggerheads. Credit: Getty

June 4, 2024 - 10:00am

The battle for Ukraine’s future has most recently been fought in Asia. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky made a surprise appearance last weekend at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore to encourage Asian leaders to attend his upcoming peace summit in Switzerland.

After years of painstaking diplomacy aimed at cultivating Beijing, Zelensky radically changed tack and publicly rebuked China for allegedly assisting Russia in pressuring countries not to attend the conference. Asserting that China is “in the hands” of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Zelensky claimed that “Russia, using Chinese influence on the region, using Chinese diplomats also, does everything to disrupt the peace summit”.

That was not the only axe the Ukrainian president had to grind with Xi Jinping. He further alleged that the Chinese leader last year “promised China would stand aside, would not support Russia with weapons” and yet “today, there is intelligence that
elements of Russia’s weaponry come from China”.

Zelensky’s outburst is only the latest sign that, for all its stated neutrality regarding the Ukraine conflict, China has in fact been backing one particular horse in this race. Having declared a “no limits” partnership with Russia back in February 2022, Xi last month hosted Putin for a two-day visit, giving the Russian leader the opportunity to boast of their close personal ties and “the emerging multipolar world
now taking shape”.

Besides funding Moscow’s war machine by purchasing Russian oil, Beijing has reportedly been assisting it more directly by supplying critical components. According to Zelensky’s latest statement, China’s leadership has also been rebuffing Ukrainian efforts to meet, ensuring that “Ukraine does not have any powerful connections with China because China does not want it”.

So if China is truly striving to — in the words of US Deputy Secretary of State Kurt Campbell — “support Russia to the hilt“, what impact will this have on the next stages of the war? For his part, Zelensky claims that China’s support to Russia will lengthen the conflict. Indeed, with the risk of Donald Trump being re-elected and potentially cutting off arms supplies to Kyiv, Ukraine’s President cannot feel reassured knowing that Moscow’s war economy is buttressed by a powerful ally with resources and diplomatic clout.

Certainly, this latest debacle offers ample demonstration that China will also prove a key player in any future peace negotiations. With Beijing having refused to attend June’s peace summit on the grounds that Moscow was not invited, the Swiss government is now suggesting there could be other summits at which Russia could be represented — an indication of China’s sway.

Turning to the more global picture, Moscow and Kiev are not the only ones at loggerheads over this war. In April, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken threatened to take action against China unless it stopped supplying Russia with critical components for the war effort. The following month, the US sanctioned over a dozen companies in China and Hong Kong, bringing an inevitable tit-for-tat from Beijing and showing how the Ukraine conflict has opened up a new frontline in US-China tensions.

Moreover, these tensions with China over Ukraine are not limited to America but extend to the wider West. On Friday, US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin informed China’s Minister of National Defence that “if China’s support for Russia’s defence sector continues, then the United States — with our allies — will have to take further measures”.

While those measures remain unknown — as does the impact of the forthcoming US presidential election — neither China nor the West are likely to back down for the time being, as autocracy supports autocracy and democracy supports democracy. No matter what happens next in the Ukraine war, Zelensky’s statement shows that he has already lost the battle for China.


Bethany Elliott is a writer specialising in Russia and Eastern Europe.

BethanyAElliott

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Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
21 days ago

Yes of course the Neocons have driven Russia into China’s embrace, precisely what every sensible Western statesman sought to prevent. It was totally predictable…and preventable but required common sense rather than greed and arrogance by Western leaders.

Peter B
Peter B
21 days ago
Reply to  Michael Cazaly

This is nonsense.
It’s Putin who’s made himself a vassal of China by botching his invasion of Ukraine. Without Chinese economic and military support, he’d be in really serious trouble. The Chinese are only too happy to string him along for the immediate future. They’re playing the long game here – they have territory in Siberia that used to be their that they’re looking to recover. Show me a time in history when there’s been any lasting, genuine alliance between China and Russia.
And that would all have happened regardless of what the “Neocons” did. It’s the inevitable result of Putin’s incompetence and Russia’s endemic corruption. And China’s unsustainable economic model (biggest bad debts in the world which will surface soon enough). Nothing any “Western statesman” did would have changed the driving forces here.
By the way, the “Neocons” were a thing back in the days of George W. Bush. The people who invaded Iraq the second time. These aren’t the people running the US show today.
This isn’t going to end well for Russia. Or China.

Rob N
Rob N
21 days ago
Reply to  Peter B

Neocons aren’t running the USA today?!

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
20 days ago
Reply to  Peter B

Responding favourably to Russia’s attempts to befriend the West would have paid dividends for the West. Indeed keeping its promise not to expand “one inch eastwards” would have shown goodwill but putting missiles in Poland against “Iranian missiles” for heaven sake was transparently hostile. Russia duly took note…only a fool wouldn’t and the Russians aren’t.

Matt F
Matt F
20 days ago
Reply to  Michael Cazaly

Russia’s attempts to befriend the West? What exactly did these consist of…? The 2006 poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko, perhaps?, Or maybe it’s 2008 invasion and annexation of Georgia? Or could these possibly include the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal, along with large parts of the city of Salisbury, with Novichok nerve agent?? With (would be) friends like these…

Basil Schmitt
Basil Schmitt
21 days ago

It’s a mistake to buy into Western propaganda and see this as “democracy supports democracy” and “autocracy supports autocracy” – it’s purely imperial power-playing. Russia-Ukraine can be partially read as a US-China proxy war.

In the West, people enjoy more civil liberties, but the state is not any more “democratic” than Russia or China – this is an important distinction.

Matt F
Matt F
20 days ago
Reply to  Basil Schmitt

Still, being ignored by an out of touch political class is still somewhat preferable to being run over by a tank or a mysterious fatal fall from a window / sudden death by some mysterious illness.

Basil Schmitt
Basil Schmitt
20 days ago
Reply to  Matt F

You can absolutely be killed or jailed for being a Western political dissident. It’s probably more common than we realise. MLK is just a classic example off the top of my head.

I assume it’s less common than in Russia or China, and again the threshold for attracting state attention is higher. It is not insignificant, again I mentioned our greater civil liberties in my comment.

Matt F
Matt F
20 days ago
Reply to  Basil Schmitt

Politically motivated assassinations are one thing, having a vast state sponsored apparatus for censorship and the wholesale suppression of any form of dissent both at home or abroad is another entirely.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
19 days ago
Reply to  Basil Schmitt

You simply made that up. There’s no evidence whatsoever that Martin Luther King was killed by the American state. It is pretty obvious that United States would contain rather a lot of people who hated MLK at the time.

Dr Illbit
Dr Illbit
20 days ago
Reply to  Basil Schmitt

The West is not simply comprised of nominal democracies. It is the incarnation of the ideal of democracy. Your remarks show that you view democracy in ideal terms – in contrast, the reality is just that democracy is the least-worst option for systems of governing large nations.

In fact I agree that democracy is ailing in the West at the moment, but what matters is that there is a belief in the POTENTIAL of democracy in the voting public.

The fact that China, Russia, et al. must hold sham elections illustrates the power of the potential of democratic govt.

And again, I agree with you that Ukraine war is a proxy war, but on a much more dangerous level than US-China – it is a war between NATO and BRICS.

Peter B
Peter B
20 days ago
Reply to  Dr Illbit

More garbage. There is no “BRICS”. India, China and Russia are not allies. Is some nutter now claiming we’re also “at war” with India ?

Peter B
Peter B
20 days ago
Reply to  Basil Schmitt

What complete and utter garbage.
We have a free press and multiple party elections. Under the rule of law.
On the other hand in Russia and China …

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
20 days ago
Reply to  Peter B

We have “a free press”? Really? The MSM is bought and paid for.
It is only since the internet has been around that free expression has been a reality…and our rulers are trying to destroy that freedom, via calling it “fake news”, disinformation and the like…

Peter B
Peter B
20 days ago
Reply to  Michael Cazaly

You’re writing on part of the free press here !!!
If you still don’t know the difference, I suggest you try doing that in Russia or China and saying something the regime don’t like.
Or check out the First Amendment in the US and then see how many other countries have something similar to protect free speech.
Of course someone has to own TV stations and newspapers. Everything is owned by someone.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
20 days ago
Reply to  Basil Schmitt

Is democracy flawed as it is practiced today? Sure thing. But comparing it to Russia and China is foolish.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
19 days ago
Reply to  Basil Schmitt

Your argument is rather black and white. What’s a without doubt the west is more democratic than Russia or China because we can change the government. Although this is not the only source of power it is significant one. It is true that governments have hidden behind law (ever expanding and reinterpreted), international treaties sometimes to override the popular will on major subjects such as immigration.

United States is both a an idealistic and an imperial power and arguably always has been. To ignore the idealistic side of its identity however is to fundamentally misunderstand the country. The original revolutionaries were both self-interested people trying to preserve their privileges but also truly believed that they should be governing “their” country directly and not a distant King and government in London. The idealism can be on the “Left” or “Right'” – or indeed a mixture of both – but it does influence the country’s foreign policy in a way that it simply doesn’t in China or Russia. The United States could have done business with Germany rather than Britain but nevertheless constantly leaned in his favor of the British well before Pearl Harbor.

Matt F
Matt F
20 days ago

There was never the slightest chance of Volodymyr Zelensky winning the “Battle For China.” Functioning democracies on the border of one party states that they once were a component of are equally anathema to the CCP as to the Putin regime – just ask the Taiwanese.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
20 days ago

For his part, Zelensky claims that China’s support to Russia will lengthen the conflict.
The conflict has been very good to his finances and those of other oligarchs, who are apparently okay with hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians dying needlessly. The end result has never been in question; some territory would be lost. But this could have been over long ago, and Zelenskyy could have shifted his loyalty from defense contractors to the likes of BlackRock.

Matt F
Matt F
20 days ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

Rubbish. This is simply a case of a democratically elected leader with his back to the wall attempting to rally support from fellow democracies to fend off an invasion by a tyrannical neighbor. Unfortunately for him, Volodymyr Zelensky has somehow become sucked into the zero-sum game of US domestic politics so that some see him not as the above, but instead as part of some Liberal Elite / Neocon / Military Industrial Complex (or choose your own favorite conspiracy theory villains) conspiracy, and the resulting delays to critical support is indeed causing Ukrainians to die needlessly.

john d rockemella
john d rockemella
19 days ago

Arrest zelensky!!

Alex Santic
Alex Santic
19 days ago

“autocracy supports autocracy and democracy supports democracy”
Is this simpleminded nonsense supposed to be analysis? All of Russia’s attempts to forge a constructive partnership with the West were rebuffed. A US-supported coup eventually led to the announcement that Washington-commanded troops would have a playground in Ukraine, of all places. China watches US warships cruising off their coast. They are both looking at the tip of the same imperial spear pointed at them.
Don’t elect entertainers to run your country. Zelensky has been geopolitically clueless from the word go.