Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said he held a “long and meaningful call” with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Wednesday, a long-anticipated first contact between the leaders since Russia’s invasion 14 months ago.
Xi appealed for negotiations between Moscow and Kyiv to begin, according to a Chinese government readout of the call, which Beijing said Zelenskyy requested.
Xi pledged to send a "special representative" to Ukraine for talks about a "political settlement" — warning that "there is no winner in a nuclear war."
China hopes to become a neutral peace broker in the conflict, although the U.S. and others have questioned its impartiality given a "no limits" partnership in which it has lent Moscow rhetorical and financial support. The lack of any talks between Beijing and Kyiv since the war began has only fueled such skepticism, although China has denied Western suggestions that it was considering arming Russia.
Beijing has been seeking to position itself as a diplomatic rival to Washington on the global stage, an effort that has gained impetus in recent months but which was dealt a setback by fury in Europe this week.
"On the Ukraine crisis, China always stands on the side of peace. Its core stance is to facilitate talks for peace," the Chinese readout said. "As a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council and a responsible major country, China would not sit idly by, nor would it add oil to the fire, still less exploit the situation for self gains."
It added that "everything China does is aboveboard."
"Dialogue and negotiation are the only viable way forward," it said.
Zelenskyy’s office said in a statement that “particular attention was paid to ways of possible interaction with the aim of establishing a just and sustainable peace for Ukraine.”
The statement also quoted Zelenskyy as saying: “Before the full-scale Russian invasion, China was Ukraine’s number one trade partner. I believe that our conversation today will provide a powerful impetus for the return, preservation, and development of this dynamic at all levels.”
Andrii Sybiha, the deputy head of Zelenskyy's office, tweeted that it was "one more important step forward to stop the war."
China released a peace proposal in February that called for negotiations and a cease-fire, which the U.S. and many Western allies dismissed as a boon to Russian President Vladimir Putin's war aims.
Beijing recently brokered a deal to normalize relations between longtime rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia while courting European leaders on visits to Beijing as it clashes with Washington over the fate of Taiwan.
Suspicion of China's bid to present itself as neutral in the conflict increased this week after its ambassador to France questioned the historical legitimacy of Ukraine and other Soviet states — comments that sparked uproar across the continent and which officials in Beijing hastily walked back.
The U.S. and its allies support Ukraine militarily and financially.
John Kirby, the National Security Council's coordinator for strategic communications, said the U.S. welcomed the call as a "good thing."
"We’ve been saying for quite some time that we believe it’s important for President Xi and PRC officials to avail themselves of the Ukrainian perspective on this illegal and unprovoked invasion by Russia," Kirby told reporters, referring to China by the initials for its formal name, the People's Republic of China.
Earlier, Kirby, told NBC News, "We will let these two leaders speak to the details of their conversation."
A senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said it was "way too soon after just getting word of this conversation to speculate about" whether the call should foster optimism about China's peace plan.
"Thus far, China has not shown itself to be unbiased when it comes to supporting Russia," the official said.
Hopes for a cease-fire aren't high internationally, with heavy fighting raging in the ruined eastern city of Bakhmut and Ukraine expected to launch a spring counteroffensive in the coming weeks.