Li Hui, China’s special envoy to seek a negotiated way out of the Ukrainian war, believes Kiev and Moscow are not yet ready to start peace talks. “As things stand now, it may be quite difficult for all sides to sit down and negotiate fruitfully,” he said during an appearance on Friday in Beijing, after returning from a trip to Europe in which he visited Ukraine, Poland, France, Germany, the headquarters of the European institutions in Brussels and Russia. The trip does not seem to have yielded tangible results so far.
In his opinion, there are still “many difficulties” to overcome. But Li, a former ambassador to Moscow and directly appointed by Chinese President Xi Jinping to weave a possible agreement, has maintained that he sees some point “of common understanding” that should not be overlooked “no matter how slight.” “The Russian side said it has never opposed peace talks”, while the Ukrainian side has also expressed “its desire for peace”, the diplomat added.
His conclusion, after two weeks of top-level meetings - with President Volodymir Zelenskiy in Kyiv and with the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, in Moscow, among others - is that none of the parties involved “has closed the door to peace talks”. The “risk of escalation”, in any case, remains “high”, and he recalled how, while he was visiting Kyiv, anti-aircraft sirens rang every day and the Ukrainian capital suffered “two huge air strikes” from Russia. All the parties, he said, have also shown their concern for the repercussions of the conflict on the rest of the world, especially with regard to “nuclear security”.
China’s intention, he said, is to evaluate the material gathered, study possible initiatives and return if necessary by sending a new delegation to persevere in the approach: “The important thing now is for someone to take the initiative to help build the broadest possible consensus and common understanding to create the conditions for the final resolution of the crisis step by step”. China, Li assured, “is ready to help”.
The trip lasted from May 15 to 28. Li thanked the “warm” welcome he received from all the countries he visited, defined the conversations as “sincere” and “in depth”, and summarized among the disasters caused by a war the very complicated train and plane connections he had to make to travel from one capital to another. He has also branded as “erroneous” the information included in a recent article in The Wall Street Journal in which he was alleged to have landed in Europe with a clear message: that the European capitals should demand a ceasefire from Ukraine while Russia is present in the occupied territories. “It’s a maneuver to sow discord between China and Ukraine,” he has noted.
Kyiv indicated in a statement following Li’s visit on May 18 that Ukraine would not accept any peace plan that involves a loss of its territory or a freeze in the conflict. Questioned directly whether China supports Ukraine taking back occupied areas, including Crimea, the special envoy has referred to the first point of the position paper Beijing submitted in February to facilitate a negotiated exit. That first paragraph is “very clear,” he has said. “We respect the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries. I think that says a lot about our position.” As for Russia, he has not made clear Moscow’s red lines for a possible cease-fire.
Li has assured that one of China’s main goals is to “lower the temperature on the battlefield” and called to stop “adding fuel,” an allusion to NATO countries providing military support to Ukraine. “If we want to end the war, it is important that we stop sending weapons to the battlefield. Or tensions will only [enter] an upward spiral,” he has asserted, echoing a position Beijing has held for months.
China has been gradually stepping into the role of negotiator. Coinciding with the anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it presented a position paper - not a peace plan - for a “political resolution of the crisis” - not a war. While the 12-point text emphasized that the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries must be “respected” and that “a nuclear war must not be fought and can never be won”, it also blamed NATO, and especially the United States, for being the real culprits in the conflict, having failed to take into account Moscow’s “legitimate security concerns”. That roadmap was received coldly by Washington and Brussels for not distinguishing between aggressor (Russia) and victim (Ukraine), after a year in which both the US and the European Union had criticized on multiple occasions the calculated “equal distance” that Beijing was maintaining in the war in favor of Moscow.
Li said during the appearance that the Ukrainian side told him during his visit that “many points” of the Chinese plan “coincide with the 10-point peace formula of President Zelenskiy”.
The veteran diplomat has spent his entire career managing China’s relationship first with the Soviet Union and then with the independent nations that emerged after its dissolution. Li Hui, 70, joined the Department of Soviet and East European Affairs of the Chinese Foreign Ministry in 1975, coinciding with a time of deep rivalry between Beijing and Moscow due to ideological, political and economic differences.
This senior official is well versed in the modus operandi of the Asian giant’s diplomacy over the past four decades. Li was first posted to the Soviet Union in 1981, where he worked for four years in various positions at the Chinese Embassy. Ten years later he was again sent to Moscow as first secretary of his country’s diplomatic headquarters, and it was in Moscow that he witnessed the disintegration of the USSR. From Russia he moved to Kazakhstan in 1992, where he served as ambassador from 1997 to 1999.
In 2008, he was appointed vice foreign minister by the Hu Jintao Administration and, a year later, ambassador to Russia, a position he retained after Xi Jinping came to power in 2013. A native of the northern province of Heilongjiang, bordering the Eurasian nation, Li is fluent in Russian and has frequently published articles in the media of both countries, in which he has not hidden a stance of alignment with the Kremlin. That track record had generated distrust in Kyiv prior to his visit. Since August 2019, after becoming the longest-serving Chinese ambassador to the Russian capital (a decade), Li has served as the Chinese government’s special representative for Eurasian affairs.
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