China’s Xi Jinping expressed willingness to speak with Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on Thursday, after French President Emmanuel Macron urged Beijing to talk sense to Russia about the Ukraine conflict.
European Union chief Ursula von der Leyen and Macron met with Xi in Beijing in closely watched talks. Macron stated that the West must engage China in order to help end the crisis and avoid “spiraling” tensions that could divide the world’s powers into warring blocs.
Xi, who has sought to position China as a potential mediator in the conflict but has been seen by the West as favouring Russia, responded by saying he hoped Moscow and Kyiv could hold peace negotiations as soon as possible.
“It was interesting to hear that President Xi reiterated his willingness to speak” to Zelenskiy, Von der Leyen said. Xi said a conversation could happen when the “conditions and time are right”, she added.
Xi did not mention a possible conversation with Zelenskiy in his own comments after the meetings.
Zelenskiy has repeatedly asked Xi to meet him, including after the Chinese leader visited Russia’s President Vladimir Putin in Moscow last month. A French diplomatic source told Reuters that Xi was “ready” to call Zelenskiy.
“The Russian aggression in Ukraine has dealt a blow to (international) stability,” Macron told Xi, standing alongside the Chinese president outside the Great Hall of the People at the start of their bilateral meeting, which lasted 90 minutes.
“I know I can count on you to bring Russia back to its senses and everyone back to the negotiating table.”
Beijing’s reputation as a diplomatic player was reinforced in March when it brokered a deal for Iran and Saudi Arabia to resume ties after years of hostility that had fuelled insecurity in the Gulf.
In a sign of the breadth of foreign policy for the world’s second largest economy, top Iranian and Saudi envoys met in Beijing on Thursday, in parallel to the Europe-China summit.
China has proposed a 12-point peace plan for the Ukraine crisis that calls on both sides to agree to a gradual de-escalation leading to a comprehensive ceasefire.
The plan has been largely dismissed by the West due to China’s refusal to condemn Russia for invading its sovereign neighbour. The United States and NATO have said China was considering sending arms to Russia, which Beijing has denied.
The French diplomatic source said Macron had urged Xi not to provide weapons to Russia, and that Xi had replied that it was not his war. China was ready to work together with France on obtaining a negotiated end to the fighting, the source said.
However, more than a year into a conflict that has claimed tens of thousands of lives, there is little sign either Russia or Ukraine are keen to negotiate.
France said the discussions between the leaders were “frank and constructive,” while China described them as “friendly” and “in-depth”.
Macron also asked Xi to press Russia to comply with international rules on non-proliferation of nuclear weapons. Putin has said he will station tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine’s neighbour Belarus.
Xi said all countries should respect commitments on not using nuclear weapons and “nuclear war shouldn’t be waged”, without mentioning Russia. He called on the international community to “refrain from any action that would lead to further deterioration of the crisis or even to it getting out of control”.
The EU leaders’ visit to China comes after years of souring relations with Beijing over issues including accusations of rights abuse in Xinjiang, a stalled investment pact and China’s reluctance to condemn Russia over its Ukraine invasion.
Rights groups accuse Beijing of abuses against Uyghurs, a mainly Muslim ethnic minority that numbers around 10 million in Xinjiang, including the mass use of forced labour in internment camps.
Von der Leyen called the situation in Xinjiang “particularly concerning.”
She also said stability in the Taiwan Strait was of paramount importance. Xi responded by saying that expecting China to compromise on Taiwan was “wishful thinking”.
But addressing the press after his arrival on Wednesday, Macron said Europe must resist reducing trade and diplomatic ties with China and reject what some have cast as an “inescapable spiral” of tension between China and the West.
Macron also met with Premier Li Qiang before meeting Xi for an elaborate ceremony at the Great Hall, where the two leaders witnessed a 21-gun salute and strode side-by-side along a red carpet.
Macron placed both hands on Xi’s during a long handshake. He then gave the Chinese leader an amicable pat on the back as they walked to greet members of each government.
Von der Leyen, on her first trip to China since taking office as European Commission president in 2019, held trilateral talks with Macron and Xi on Thursday evening.
Von der Leyen, who also met Premier Li, took a slightly firmer tone in comments after her meetings. Just days before the visit she said Europe must “de-risk” diplomatically and economically with a hardening China.
For its part, China is eager to ensure Europe does not follow what it sees as U.S.-led efforts to contain its rise.
Macron, travelling with a 50-strong business delegation including Airbus, luxury giant LVMH and nuclear energy producer EDF, is also in China seeking economic wins.
Airbus signed deals on Thursday to open a new assembly line in China, doubling its capacity in the world’s second-largest aviation market, and got a final green light to some previously announced jet orders.
The Elysee palace said French state utility EDF and Chinese utility CGN, both major operators of nuclear plants, had signed a deal to renew a long-standing partnership. Deals were also signed between EDF and China Energy Investment Corporation for offshore wind projects.