Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has irked China, whose President Xi Jinping was trying to project himself as the peacemaker-in-chief. Chinese experts called Modi an ‘opportunist’ and a ‘deceiver’ after he met with Zelenskyy in Japan.
Modi’s assurances to Ukraine – while sidestepping the economic impact of the war – would be uncomfortable for Beijing because it shows New Delhi is maximising its national interest. But Beijing shouldn’t be a factor in New Delhi’s equations and its agnostic and humanitarian approach to resolving the Ukraine war must continue. “I don’t see this as a political or economic issue. For me, this is an issue of humanity, an issue of human values,” Modi said during the meeting with Zelenskyy.
Such a stance would make China reveal its cards, the way South Asian Studies Group did when it criticised Modi’s use of the word ‘humanitarianism’, calling it “a clever script that embodies the traditional Indian art of sophistry”.
“The practical meaning behind Modi’s words is: ‘Western countries must consider the power of India to take advantage of it, otherwise I, over a billion people, cannot afford Russian oil and Ukrainian wheat, which is the true humanitarian disaster’,” the group, an independent project by Chinese scholars, said on their Weibo account.
Weibo users were united in calling Modi-Zelenskyy meeting a way to ‘deceive’ the West. “Indian sophistry is better than European and American sanctimoniousness,” said a user.
Liu Xu, a researcher at the Institute of Eurasian Studies, Renmin University, said Modi was trying to ‘maximise his national interest’.
“I think it is difficult for Modi to change his position, but it may be possible to maximise his national interests,” Liu said.
While India’s pursuit of ‘national interest’ in the context of the Russia-Ukraine war undermines China’s strategy to maximise the ‘benefits’ of the war, there is another reason China feels uneasy about Modi meeting Zelenskyy.
China recently sent a senior diplomat Li Hui as its envoy to Ukraine. The aim was to signal that Beijing is interested in ‘mediating peace’ without calling out Russia.
Li Hui is no random diplomat but is China’s Special Envoy to Eurasian Affairs. Li has been personally picked by Xi Jinping to lead the ‘peace efforts in Ukraine’. Li has previously served as the former Chinese ambassador to Russia and Kazakhstan.
Though the Chinese plenipotentiary may have been empowered to share China’s perspective on the Ukraine war, his visit to Kyiv is merely symbolic as Zhongnanhai’s ideological convergence with the Kremlin isn’t about to change.
Despite Xi losing the opportunity to meet Zelensky, the Chinese experts have tried to portray China’s role in facilitating Zelenskyy’s visit. Zelenskyy travelled on a French government Falcon jet, which had to transit through Chinese airspace. Chinese experts are holding on to little victories that won’t earn Beijing much goodwill in Europe as Xi has lost the opportunity to connect with Zelenskyy.
The Chinese state media promoted a narrative that India’s interest in maintaining neutrality in the Russia-Ukraine war is to buy more oil.
The Chinese experts who cry foul that India is a beneficiary of the oil trade in the current context forget that Beijing bought 2.1 million barrels of oil in April 2023 from Russia, according to Financial Times.
The High Representative Josep Borrell recently urged the EU to crack down on India’s Russian oil trade, indirectly funding the Kremlin’s war. Borrell’s remarks overjoyed the Chinese commentators who saw Modi’s meeting with Zelenskyy as an attempt to avoid EU sanctions.
Beijing would now want India to be sanctioned by the EU as it feels New Delhi has been getting the best of both worlds while Zhongnanhai gets everyone’s flak for its relations with Russia. The Russia-Ukraine war has divided opinion within the Chinese expert community, but Xi’s proposal to act as a mediator has made them rally around Beijing’s plan to play ‘peace maker’.
Calling Modi an ‘opportunist’ wouldn’t help Beijing. Xi missed an opportunity to meet Zelenskyy and was beaten to it by Modi.
The author is a columnist and a freelance journalist. He was previously a China media journalist at the BBC World Service. He is currently a MOFA Taiwan Fellow based in Taipei and tweets @aadilbrar. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)