China's Xi Jinping willing to call Ukraine's Zelenskiy, EU chief says

China’s president Xi Jinping, his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen meet for a working session in Beijing, China on 6 April 2023.

China's Xi Jinping expressed willingness to speak to Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, the head of the EU said on Thursday, after French President Emmanuel Macron urged Beijing to talk sense to Russia over the war in Ukraine.

In closely watched talks, EU chief Ursula von der Leyen and Macron met with Xi in Beijing. Macron said the West must engage China to help end the crisis and prevent "spiralling" tensions that could split global powers into warring blocs.

Xi, who has sought to position China as a potential mediator in the conflict but is 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, calling his words "positive". Xi said a conversation could happen when the "conditions and time are right", she added.

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.

"I know I can count on you to bring Russia back to its senses and everyone back to the negotiating table."

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 was largely dismissed by the West due to China's refusal to condemn Russia, and the United States and NATO then said China was considering sending arms to Russia, which Beijing has denied.

"Arming the aggressor is a clear violation of international law," von der Leyen said. "This would indeed significantly harm the relationship between the EU and China."

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.

In comments after the meeting, Xi called for Ukraine and Russia to resume peace talks and find a political solution to the conflict. More than a year into a conflict that has claimed thousands of lives, there is little sign either side is keen to negotiate.

Nuclear proliferation

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, a move seen as a dangerous escalation in the bloody year-long conflict.

China’s president Xi Jinping, his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen meet for a working session in Beijing, China on 6 April 2023.

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.

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.

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.

Macron also met with Premier Li Qiang before meeting Xi for an elaborate ceremony outside the Great Hall, where the two leaders witnessed a 21-gun salute and strode side-by-side along a red carpet as a brass band played their national anthems.

Macron placed both hands on Xi's during a long handshake after they met outside the Great Hall on Thursday. He then gave the Chinese leader an amicable pat on the back as they walked to greet members of each government.

Von der Leyen, who also met Premier Li on Thursday, 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.

"Both Europe and China have benefited immensely from this relationship, however, EU-China relations have become more complex in the recent years and it is important that we discuss together all the aspects of our relations today," von der Leyen said before her meeting with Li.

Li said the partnership with the EU and France stood at "a new starting point" and both parties should adhere to "mutual respect and win-win cooperation".

For its part, China is eager to ensure Europe does not follow what it sees as US-led efforts to contain its rise.

"It is worth noting that various forces in Europe and the U.S. are paying close attention to Macron's visit and exerting influence in different directions," state media outlet Global Times wrote in an editorial. "In other words, not everyone wants to see Macron's visit to China go smoothly and successfully."

Business deals

Macron, travelling with a 50-strong business delegation including Airbus AIR.PA, luxury giant LVMH LVMH.PA and nuclear energy producer EDF EDF.PA, 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 give the final green light to some previously announced jet orders.

While the French business community has welcomed Macron's overtures to China, not everyone at home thinks that signing big money deals is good signal to send.

"At a time the debate in Europe focuses on our suicidal dependency on China and Chinese interference, the message is inopportune," Raphael Glucksmann, a left-wing member of the European parliament, wrote on Twitter before Macron's visit.