BEIJING — Chinese President Xi Jinping expressed willingness to speak to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the head of the E.U. said on Thursday, after French President Emmanuel Macron urged Beijing to talk sense to Russia over the war in Ukraine.
In closely watched talks, European Union chief Ursula von der Leyen and Macron met with Xi in Beijing. Macron said the West must engage China to help end the crisis and prevent “spiraling” tensions that could split global powers into warring blocs.
Xi, who has sought to position China as a potential mediator in the conflict but has been seen by the West as favoring Russia, responded by saying he hoped Moscow and Kyiv could hold peace negotiations as soon as possible.
“It was interesting to hear that President Xi reiterated his willingness to speak” to Zelenskyy, von der Leyen said. Xi said a conversation could happen when the “conditions and time are right,” she added.
Xi did not mention a possible conversation with Zelenskyy in his own comments after the meetings.
Zelenskyy has repeatedly asked Xi to meet him, including after the Chinese leader visited Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow last month.
“The Russian aggression in Ukraine has dealt a blow to (international) stability,” Macron told Xi, standing alongside the Chinese president outside the Great Hall of the People at the start of their bilateral meeting, which lasted 90 minutes.
“I know I can count on you to bring Russia back to its senses and everyone back to the negotiating table.”
Beijing’s reputation as a diplomatic player was reinforced in March when it brokered a deal for Iran and Saudi Arabia to resume ties after years of hostility that had fueled insecurity in the Gulf.
In a sign of the breadth of foreign policy for China, the world’s second-largest economy after the United States, top Iranian and Saudi envoys met in Beijing on Thursday, in parallel to the Europe-China summit.
China has proposed a 12-point peace plan for the Ukraine crisis that calls on both sides to agree to a gradual de-escalation leading to a comprehensive cease-fire.
The plan has been largely dismissed by the West due to China’s refusal to condemn Russia for invading its sovereign neighbor. The United States and NATO have said China was considering sending arms to Russia, which Beijing has denied.
More than a year into a conflict that has claimed tens of thousands of lives, there is little sign either Russia or Ukraine are keen to negotiate.
France said the discussions between the leaders were “frank and constructive,” while China described them as “friendly” and “in-depth.”
Macron also asked Xi to press Russia to comply with international rules on nonproliferation of nuclear weapons. Putin has said he will station tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine’s neighbor Belarus.
Xi said all countries should respect commitments on not using nuclear weapons and “nuclear war shouldn’t be waged,” without mentioning Russia. He called on the international community to “refrain from any action that would lead to further deterioration of the crisis or even to it getting out of control.”
The E.U. leaders’ visit to China comes after years of souring relations with Beijing over issues including accusations of rights abuses in Xinjiang, a stalled investment pact and China’s reluctance to condemn Russia over its Ukraine invasion.
Rights groups accuse Beijing of abuses against Uyghurs, a mainly Muslim ethnic minority that numbers around 10 million in Xinjiang, including the mass use of forced labor in internment camps.
Von der Leyen called the situation in Xinjiang “particularly concerning.”
She also said stability in the Taiwan Strait was of paramount importance. Xi responded by saying that expecting China to compromise on Taiwan was “wishful thinking.”
But addressing the news media after his arrival on Wednesday, Macron said Europe must resist reducing trade and diplomatic ties with China and reject what some have cast as an “inescapable spiral” of tension between China and the West.