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Hong Kong (CNN) -- China's Ukraine war envoy ended a nearly two-week tour of Europe with a stop in Moscow on Friday, closing a mission that served as a key test of Beijing's attempt to negotiate an end to the conflict.
Beijing's stated interest in promoting communication to resolve the conflict has been provisionally welcomed in Europe, where Chian's special representative, Li Hui, met with officials from Ukraine, Poland, France, Germany and the European Union headquarters in Brussels on a tour that began on May 16.
However, Li's trip also laid bare the divisions between China and Europe when it comes to how to achieve peace, and served to underscore Beijing's close alignment with Moscow.
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Li received a warm welcome during his last stop in the Russian capital, where he had previously been China's ambassador for a decade, and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Friday hailed Beijing's "balanced position" on the war and its willingness to play a "positive role" in its settlement.
Across Europe, however, officials stressed a different point: the need for a peace that would allow Russia to withdraw its invading troops and restore Ukraine's legal territory, and their interest in China supporting that vision, which it has yet to do.
Instead, according to Beijing's readings, Li advocated creating a "consensus" for peace talks and strengthening Europe's own "security architecture," a veiled reference to China's view that Europe should not protect itself through institutions such as NATO, which include the United States but not Russia.
"The basic problem is that China doesn't want Russia or Putin to appear to have failed... (and) an agreement requiring Russia to give up the territories conquered in the invasion would be a defeat for Russia," said Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute at the University of London.
As such, that is "not on the table for China," Tsang said. "But Ukraine cannot accept anything that does not involve the restoration of its territories," and the European Union does not want it to "look like [Russia] gets away with the territorial gains of its invasion, he added.
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A "just" peace
China — which sees Russia as a key partner and counterweight amid its rising tensions with the West — has refused to condemn Moscow's invasion of Ukraine or call for the withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukrainian territory, even though millions of people have been displaced and tens of thousands killed in the Kremlin's unprovoked assault on the country.
That stance has horrified much of Europe, and Li's tour comes at a time when China is trying to repair relations there.
A vaguely worded 12-point position paper on China's vision for the "political solution" of the conflict, released earlier this year and promoted by Li during his tour, said the "legitimate security concerns" of "all countries" should be addressed.
He also said the "sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity" of all countries must be defended.
But most importantly, the document did not call for the withdrawal of Russian troops to end hostilities, but advocated a ceasefire, which Western critics say amounts to allowing Russia to consolidate its illegal territorial gains.
Criticism of China's stance on how to end the conflict and its close relationship with Russia were implicit in summaries provided by European officials of their meetings with Li, in which they urged Beijing to align more with their views.
"Any attempt to match the status of Russia — the aggressor in this conflict — and Ukraine, the victim, is not acceptable," Polish Deputy Foreign Minister Wojciech Gerwel told Li.
"Any meaningful way to end Russia's illegal war of aggression against Ukraine must be consistent with the Charter of the United Nations in its entirety," European Union Deputy Secretary-General for Political Affairs Enrique Mora said in his meeting with the Chinese envoy.
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Frédéric Mondoloni, director of Political and Security Affairs at the French Foreign Ministry, told Li that Paris was convinced that China could play a role in a "just and lasting peace," particularly with regard to Ukraine's "sovereignty and territorial integrity," while stressing that Moscow bore "full responsibility for the unleashing and continuation of the war."
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba also underlined Kyiv's own "peace formula," which includes an unequivocal call for the withdrawal of Russian troops and the return of its internationally recognized borders when he met Li earlier this month.
Asked about Li's tour on Friday, Mao Ning, a spokeswoman for China's Foreign Ministry, said China's efforts toward peace talks had "received broad understanding and support from the international community."
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov receives Li Hui, China's special representative for Eurasian affairs, at the headquarters of the Russian Foreign Ministry in Moscow on May 26, 2023.
Credit: Russian Foreign Ministry/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
However, while Beijing has insisted on remaining neutral on the war, its close position with Russia and its belligerent relationship with the United States, which it has accused of fuelling the conflict by supporting Ukraine's defense, have also raised doubts about the intentions of its peace campaign.
Over the weekend, Kuleba addressed a report in The Wall Street Journal that quoted Western officials as saying Li pressured his European interlocutors to urge an immediate ceasefire, which, by extension, would leave parts of Ukraine under Russian control.
"I immediately contacted my colleagues from the capitals he visited (Li) and they all confirmed to me that there had been no talks or negotiations on Russia's recognition of the territories (which he currently controls) in Ukraine," Kuleba said in a video message posted on his Facebook page.
"No one will do anything against us behind Ukraine's back, because we have established relations of trust with all our key partners," he added.
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Asked about the news at a press briefing Monday, Mao of China's Foreign Ministry denied The Wall Street Journal's characterization of Li's meetings and instead pointed to China's own readings of the meetings.
While China may have limited influence in changing views on peace terms, observers say there are areas where Europe will welcome better communication, such as food security, humanitarian aid and combating nuclear threats.
Meanwhile, hope remains that China can use its relationship with the Kremlin to push Putin toward peace, a view French President Emmanuel Macron recently trumpeted during a visit to Beijing last month.
"The visit is valuable for the Europeans because they can use Li to convey a message directly to leaders in Beijing and, potentially, to Moscow. Li has a direct line to Xi Jinping and might be better prepared to communicate with Xi than staff at Chinese embassies in Germany, France or Poland," said Moritz Rudolf, a fellow and fellow at Yale Law School's Paul Tsai China Center in the United States.
"The crucial question is what message from Europe — Kyiv, Warsaw, Berlin, Paris and Brussels — Li will convey in Moscow and Beijing," he said.
--CNN's Xiaofei Xu, Andrew Carey, Yulia Kesaieva, Olga Voitovych and Darya Tarasova contributed to this report.
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