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Biden’s Secret Visit to Kyiv Dismantles Beijing’s Image as an Honest Broker           

27 Feb 2023
By Guangyi Pan
President walks with President Zelenskyy in Ukraine. Source: POTUS Twitter/

President Joseph R. Biden’s unexpected visit to Kyiv is an unprecedented event in modern times. For Beijing, the visit couldn’t have come at a worse time.

It was a great coincidence that on the same day Chinese Director of the CCP Central Foreign Affairs Office (formerly foreign minister) Wang Yi landed in Moscow to meet with Vladimir Putin, president of the United States Joseph R. Biden landed in Kyiv to meet with Volodymyr Zelensky. There is no doubt that this upset China’s attempts to lay out the groundwork for a role in Russian-Ukrainian mediation. This is despite the fact that China has been trying to avoid its own involvement on Russia’s side since the beginning of the war.

Given China’s growing cooperation with Russia in recent years, and Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party Xi Jinping’s assertion that Sino-Russian cooperation “has no limits,” there is little chance that Beijing can stand by and pretend that Russian aggression doesn’t exist. On 7 March 2022, Wang Yi stated that China was willing to play a constructive role in peace talks between Ukraine and Russia. This was the first time Beijing expressed its willingness to act as a mediator in the war. Since then, China’s presence has become increasingly visible and conspicuous. On the one hand, it openly portrays itself as a responsible power, offering initiatives to de-escalate the conflict via multilateral channels (this includes the “four points” delivered at the UN Security Council in September 2022). The latest effort can be found in Wang’s proposal to build an International Organization for Mediation for the peaceful resolution of conflicts and his “peace plan,” which was presented during his recent trip to Europe. These efforts have had no substantial effect on the war and the international response has been unsurprisingly cool. Part of the reason for this is that Beijing has at the same time ramped up its economic assistance to and political support for Moscow.

Since the outbreak of war in February 2022, trade between Russia and China has soared, especially in the energy sector. Bilateral trade in 2022 rose 34.3 percent year-on-year to a record high of USD$190 billion. More importantly, as international sanctions began to take their toll on the Russian economy and military industry, China became not only great Moscow’s money-spinner but also a major supplier of key technologies. Some of China’s state-owned defence companies are claimed to be trading in sensitive technologies with Russian defence actors, including jet-fighter parts.

There is no doubt that Beijing seeks to improve its positive international image as a peacemaker. However, this year, with Ukraine’s determined resistance on the battlefield, increasing Western aid, and Russia’s frustrated military advances, Beijing is also reported to be considering more active involvement in the war with preparation for all eventualities. This means that Beijing likely sees Wang’s stop in Europe as a chance to raise its profile as a proponent of peace and negotiation. At the same time, it has also sought to further expand its bilateral relationship with Russia based on the “rock solid” framework established prior to the invasion of Ukraine. It is this image, and not the peaceful mediator, that will continue to gain the most attention, particularly since it is likely to be reiterated at Xi’s next visit to Moscow in the near future.

Beyond the issue of Russia, China is also trying to rehabilitate its tarnished image from its belligerent “wolf-worrier diplomacy.” With U.S.-China relations currently on ice over the spy balloon incident, China hopes to gain the goodwill of Washington’s European allies while maintaining a tough stance toward the US. Wang Yi left for Germany on 18 February 2023 to attend the Munich Security Conference with the objective to promote Xi’s Global Security Initiative. This Initiative and its subsequent principles has adopted a broad and selectively universalist language in which China’s ambition to construct a non-Western alternative to international order is evident.

Although China is keen to prove its willingness to international audiences, the feedback remains rather embarrassing. Audiences found Wang’s “peace plan” incomplete and looking more like a “position paper” –  and one that was far from both Putin’s war goals and Kyiv’s zero-tolerance on the compromise of territory. To the West, it is highly suspect that China’s position neither urges Russia to withdraw its troops nor condemns the blatant sovereign intrusion, illustrating that this initiative may be just more evidence of China’s collusion with Russia.

It is consequential, therefore, that this window-dressing effort should be disturbed by Biden’s unexpected visit to Kyiv. These efforts were tarnished further by Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s charge that China is considering supplying weapons and ammunition to Russia for the Ukraine war. What echoes this assertation is a warning from Zelensky, who stated, “if China allies itself with Russia, there will be a world war, and I do think that China is aware of that.” This is undoubtedly the harshest and toughest statement against China by Ukraine so far, which has been carefully seeking understanding and support from Beijing since the outbreak of the war.

While reinforcing the certainty of substantial support for Ukraine, Biden’s visit also placed China in an awkward position. Wang’s “peace plan” and the Global Security Initiative is now more likely to be portrayed as China standing in the trenches with Russia, a position China’s “Rock Solid”  relationship with Putin already resembles.

It is possible that Biden’s sudden appearance in Kyiv will encourage more leaders to visit Ukraine to display their positions. In comparison to that, Beijing’s reluctance to condemn Putin’s invasion, its acquiescence to Russia’s annexation, and the generous trade agreement with Moscow have heightened global concerns about whether China can be an honest broker who really seeks a political settlement, as promised by Wang. China is rightly criticised for trying to have it both ways in the war. The big inconsistencies in China’s words and deeds will increasingly be its negative assets.

Guangyi Pan is a PhD candidate in International Politics at UNSW. His research fields include Asia-Pacific politics, realist theory, and Cold War History. His recent works have appeared in various journals, including International Affairs, Pacific Review, and Journal of Chinese Political Science. (Email:; LinkedIn)

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.