10 August 2023

Considerable attention has been focused on China’s participation in the Saudi-hosted talks at national security adviser level on Ukraine in Jedda over the weekend 5-6 August 2023, while Russia was not invited. But there is a less noticed feature of Chinese diplomacy that has possibly been unsettling President Putin for a good deal longer.

With Russia absent, the Jedda gathering was not one for peace talks. Instead, it was designed chiefly for the Saudis to advertise their capacity to promote any such talks at a more propitious moment and provided an opportunity for the Ukrainians to drum up support for their own peace plan beyond their European and north American base, which pivots on the key foundational principle of the United Nations; namely, that ‘All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state … . ‘(Art. 2.4). China is reported to have contributed constructively to the Jedda talks and indicated an intention to join the next round. Most importantly, there was a consensus in support of the UN principle.

As far as it goes, China’s support for the UN Charter does not separate it from Russia because President Putin simply says ‘Me too …but the UN principle is irrelevant in this case because Ukraine’s independent statehood is a fiction.’ Inconveniently for the Kremlin, however, China itself recognizes Ukraine as a state. Underlining this is the fact that it welcomes a regular Ukrainian embassy in Beijing. Furthermore, I am reliably informed that China maintains a functioning embassy of its own in Kyiv, which is little remarked only because there is no published Kyiv diplomatic list, the mission has little visibility on the Internet, and – presumably because of China’s well-advertised friendship with Russia – it keeps the Kyiv public at arm’s-length and limits its professional encounters to the most important. Since among the Jedda meeting’s conclusions was the provision that ‘a separate ambassadors group in Kyiv would continue technical work’, it is a reasonable assumption that meetings of this group would be high on its list.

In view of the importance of the Chinese Embassy in Kyiv, it is possible that it is at least as substantial as the Chinese Embassy in neighbouring Romania, which has a nominal diplomatic staff of 32; even in tiny Moldova, another neighbour, the Chinese embassy has 11 diplomatic officers on its books. On the other hand, in view of the narrow escape from ‘friendly fire’ of its consular post in Odessa in late July 2023 (a building sustained minor damage from a Russian missile and drone attack), and memories of the fate of China’s embassy in Belgrade on 7 May 1999 when struck by bombs launched from a US stealth bomber during the Kosovo War, its Kyiv embassy is likely to include essential staff only.

In sum, the presence of China’s embassy in Kyiv, however substantial, underlines its recognition of the Ukrainian state to the discomfit of the Kremlin, possibly contributes to groundwork for an eventual settlement of the war, and means, too, that Beijing can have no illusions about the death and destruction being gratuitously wreaked on the civilian structure of the sovereign state of Ukraine by President Putin’s government: its diplomatic officers on the ground will smell the burning.