Freshly reappointed to a third term, Xi is pushing for a bigger role for China on the global stage and was instrumental in brokering a surprise rapprochement between Middle East rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia this month.
Rumors that he could soon have his first talks with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy since the outbreak of war have sparked hopes in Western capitals that Xi could lean on his “old friend” Putin to bolster his bloody invasion during the three-day state visit to stop.
Announcing the trip on Friday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said China will “play a constructive role in promoting peace talks.”
“Stopping the war is everyone’s desire as Europe risks losing so much and the United States may not be able to support Ukraine for as long as it thinks possible,” said Wang Yiwei, director of the Institute of International Affairs in Beijing Renmin University of China.
“China can present its views on both sides – it can say that it is a trusted friend of both Ukraine and Russia. I think that is very significant.”
Beijing, a key Russian ally, has long attempted to present itself as a neutral party to the conflict.
But it has refused to condemn Russia’s invasion and has slammed Washington’s support for Kiev – leading to Western leaders accusing Beijing of giving Russia a diplomatic cover to bash its European neighbor.
“Beijing has done remarkably little to promote peace in Ukraine, as any credible effort would require pressuring Russia, or at least confronting Russia directly,” said Elizabeth Wishnick, a professor and expert on Chinese foreign policy from Montclair State University in the United States.
Xi’s trip — which comes after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Putin on war crimes charges on Friday — aims to show “all the support it can give to its strategic partner without aid leading to sanctions.” would,” she told AFP.
Lots of talk, little content
To play peacemaker, China released a 12-point position paper on the war in Ukraine last month, calling for dialogue and respect for all countries’ territorial sovereignty.
Beijing has also touted its Global Security Initiative (GSI), a typically Xi policy aimed at “promoting lasting peace and development.”
Both documents have drawn ire in the West for focusing on broad principles rather than practical solutions to the crisis.
China’s recent diplomacy around the war appeared to be “an attempt to highlight the GSI” and “to build momentum for its foreign policy and re-engagement with the world,” said Ja Ian Chong, an associate professor at the National University of Singapore.
“Whether (China) actually ramps up its efforts to play peacemaker in a meaningful way will depend on the substance of what it proposes in meetings with leaders from Ukraine and Russia,” said Chong, who specializes in Beijing’s international relations.
“Their previous peace plan was more about general principles than actionable proposals.”
Beijing’s efforts to present itself as an international mediator took center stage this month as it oversaw a deal restoring diplomatic ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
It later emerged that Xi himself was offering China to act as a “bridge” between the rivals, challenging Washington’s long-standing role as the Middle East’s main outside power broker.
“Brokering the (Saudi-Iran) deal fits into the Chinese government’s narrative of being a positive-sum global actor promoting peace and cooperation, which contrasts with Washington’s allegedly destabilizing actions,” Audrye Wong said , Assistant Professor at the University of Southern California.
But quelling the shooting in Ukraine would be “a bit more difficult” than the Saudi-Iran deal, Renmin University’s Wang said, citing China’s “limited” influence over Moscow and US support for Kiev.
Beijing, he suggested, could help initiate “a Korean War-like truce” that halts fighting but raises questions of territorial sovereignty later.
However, Montclair State’s Wishnick said Ukraine “is unlikely to accept China as a mediator as it is not seen as neutral or impartial”.
“Xi may be eager for diplomatic success, but I just don’t see anyone on the horizon in Ukraine,” she said.
“Neither side is willing to give up hope of gaining territory on the battlefield.”