xi and macron call for ukraine peace talks but the path is murky

It is not clear that the Chinese and French leaders — much less Russia and Ukraine — have compatible terms for talks or peace, and Mr. Xi has not publicly agreed to pressure Moscow to negotiate.

President Emmanuel Macron of France and Xi Jinping, China’s top leader, appealed on Thursday for a rapid return to peace talks to end the war in Ukraine, but Mr. Xi did not indicate whether he would use his close relationship with Moscow to push Russia to negotiate.

Greeted with great pomp at the flag-bedecked Great Hall of the People, Mr. Macron told Mr. Xi that he was counting on him “to bring Russia back to reason and everyone back to the negotiating table” on Ukraine.

Mr. Xi, appearing alongside the French leader, went part way toward a positive response. He said that “together with France, we appeal for reason and restraint” in the conflict. China was seeking “a resumption of peace talks as soon as possible,” he said, and, in an apparent nod to Russian concerns over NATO’s expansion eastward, “a European security architecture that is balanced, effective and lasting.”

In what Mr. Xi described as “a joint call with France for the international community,” he said that China “appeals for the protection of civilians. Nuclear weapons must not be used, and nuclear war must not be fought.” His statement marked some distance from President Vladimir V. Putin, who has repeatedly hinted at nuclear warfare and whose forces have routinely targeted civilians.

President Emmanuel Macron of France and Xi Jinping, China’s top leader, called for a return to peace talks over Russia’s war on Ukraine during a meeting in Beijing.Ng Han Guan/EPA, via Shutterstock

Two important points were, however, left vague. It was unclear whether Mr. Xi might put any pressure on Mr. Putin, as Mr. Macron requested; and Mr. Xi did not commit to any time frame for speaking with President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, who said last month that China could be a “partner” in seeking peace.

The aftermath of a Russian strike in March in Sloviansk, Ukraine. Mr. Xi and Mr. Macron appealed on Thursday for a rapid return to peace talks to end the war in Ukraine.Daniel Berehulak/The New York Times

There have been no known peace talks between Moscow and Kyiv since last April, and each side insists it has no interest in a cease-fire, setting preconditions that are anathema to the other.

Moscow claimed last year to annex four provinces in eastern and southern Ukraine, though its forces do not control all of that territory, and insists that Kyiv must recognize them as Russian. Ukraine’s stated position has been that Russia must withdraw or be driven out of occupied lands — including Crimea, the peninsula Russia illegally annexed in 2014 — before there can be peace talks. Any halt in fighting, Mr. Zelensky has said, would simply solidify the Kremlin’s control of the area it has seized and reward its aggression.

Before the invasion last year and in the weeks after it, Mr. Zelensky expressed openness to discussing the status of some of the area claimed by Russia, including Crimea. His position later hardened, but this week, there were mixed signals from his government about whether, beneath its tough public stance, there was some room for negotiation.

If Ukrainian forces recapture enough occupied land in the south to reach the border of Crimea, Kyiv would be willing to discuss the status of the peninsula with Moscow, Andriy Sybiha, the deputy head of Mr. Zelensky’s office, told The Financial Times. But he later told the BBC that reverting to diplomacy did not mean Ukraine would give up its goal of reclaiming the peninsula. And Tamila Tasheva, Mr. Zelensky’s envoy on Crimea, told Politico that the only open question on Crimea was whether Russia left voluntarily or by force.

The NATO countries backing Ukraine insist it is up to Kyiv whether and when to negotiate, but many officials within the alliance have said privately — and sometimes publicly — that Ukraine should consider peace talks without achieving all of its goals. Western nations are wary that the war could drag on for years, or that losses on the ground could prompt Mr. Putin to escalate.

Mr. Sybiha’s comments could be a signal to the allies saying, “Don’t worry, we won’t act rashly,” said François Heisbourg, a French defense expert. “Send us tanks and planes but we won’t use this stuff in a way that creates a crisis.”

Mr. Zelensky has taken care not to criticize China and has said he wants to talk with Mr. Xi, in hopes that Beijing can use its influence in Russia to Ukraine’s benefit.

China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, center left, walking with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia at the Kremlin in March, in an image from Russian state media.Sputnik, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Mr. Xi last month traveled to Moscow for a warm state visit with Mr. Putin, but he has not spoken directly with Mr. Zelensky since Russia’s full-scale invasion more than a year ago.

Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president who accompanied Mr. Macron to Beijing in a show of European unity (even if they did not appear together publicly), told journalists that “President Xi reiterated his willingness to speak when conditions and the time are right” with Mr. Zelensky. Asked if Mr. Xi had given a timeline, she demurred.

Neither Mr. Macron nor Mr. Xi took questions from journalists on Thursday.

Mr. Macron told Mr. Xi the objective of any negotiation must be “a durable peace that respects internationally recognized borders and avoids all forms of escalation.”

Mr. Xi called for parties to “observe the purposes and principles of the U.N. Charter,” which calls for countries to refrain from the “use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.” Yet China has never condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine nor called Mr. Putin’s assault on a neighboring state a war.

China and Russia declared they had a “no-limits” friendship last year, though a Chinese ambassador recently downplayed that statement. Mr. Xi said last month that Russia and China were together ushering in a “new era” that puts an end to what the two countries see as American dominance.

It was not immediately clear how this stance might be compatible with Mr. Macron’s request to China that it intervene to end a war started by Mr. Putin, and ultimately restore “internationally recognized borders.”

But the cooperation between China and France, symbolized by the announcement on Thursday of a large framework agreement for the acquisition and expanded assembly in China of Airbus aircraft, suggested new possibilities. Mr. Macron is determined, in his words, to build “a strategic and global partnership with China.”

China, for its part, has embarked on a charm offensive toward France, and to some degree the 27-nation European Union, and offered Mr. Macron an elaborate and flattering reception — marching bands, a 21-gun salute, a review of troops and a long walk side by side with Mr. Xi on a red carpet leading into the vast building at the western edge of Tiananmen Square. Mr. Xi will spend at least six hours with Mr. Macron in Beijing and Guangzhou on Friday, treatment described by Western diplomats as exceptional and a clear statement of conciliatory intent.

The United States increasingly sees China as not only an economic and political rival but an adversary and a security threat, and has tried with mixed success to win its European allies over to that view.

Beijing would like to drive a wedge between the United States and Europe, a consistent theme during Mr. Macron’s visit. Mr. Xi, for example, said China supports Mr. Macron’s quest for European “strategic autonomy,” shorthand for some European distancing from the United States.

China’s President Xi Jinping, center, France’s President Emmanuel Macron, left, and the European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, in Beijing on Thursday.Pool photo by Ludovic Marin

“China considers Europe to be an independent pole in a multipolar world,” Mr. Xi said.

It was an explicit sign that he does not view America’s alliance with Europe as a defining feature of the continent in a 21st century that China seeks to shape.

“The China-Europe relationship is not targeted at, subjugated to, or controlled by any third party,” Mr. Xi said.

He spoke as the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia and Iran held talks on Thursday in Beijing, following up on a deal mediated by China that reestablished diplomatic relations between the two countries last month.

It was the highest-level meeting since the erstwhile enemies cut ties seven years ago and another sign of the shifting balance of power in a world where China’s influence is expanding and some allies like Saudi Arabia feel less beholden to the United States.

A statement from the Chinese Foreign Ministry after President Xi held a three-way meeting with Mr. Macron and Ms. von der Leyen took clear aim at the United States. “Playing up the ‘democracy vs. authoritarianism’ narrative and stoking a new Cold War will only bring division and confrontation to the world,” it said.

Europe’s hard-hit economy needs the Chinese market, and Europe provides major economic opportunities to China that are not readily available in Russia.

Mr. Macron, embattled at home over his decision to raise the retirement age to 64, appears to have found in Mr. Xi a partner in imagining a new world. Mr. Xi borrowed some of the French president’s favorite phrases, speaking of changed “strategic architecture,” freed from “bloc confrontation,” and offering European “strategic autonomy.”

The hard part is knowing what all this means, how it might be applied, and what place the United States, France’s oldest ally, would have in such a world.

Reporting was contributed by Vivian Wang in Beijing, Keith Bradsher in Shanghai, Steven Erlanger in Brussels and David Pierson in Singapore.

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