Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky offered to help Ukraine become a “bridge to Europe” for China during a phone conversation with Chinese leader Xi Jinping on Tuesday, the Kyiv Post reported Wednesday.
“Volodymyr Zelenskyy expressed hope that Ukraine could become a ‘bridge to Europe’ for Chinese business,” Ukraine’s presidential office wrote in an official summary of the July 13 phone call.
“The heads of state discussed the importance of developing interpersonal contacts between our countries and agreed to conclude a visa-free agreement between Ukraine and China,” according to the press release.
“China is Ukraine’s number one trade and economic partner in the world. And we are interested in the full realization of the potential of bilateral cooperation, especially in the areas of trade and major infrastructure projects,” Zelensky reportedly told Xi during the phone call.
Zelensky highlighted the fact that “trade between Ukraine and China has been growing for the second year in a row.” He said this “testifies to productive bilateral cooperation” between Kyiv and Beijing.
“Ukraine saw a 20.8 percent year-on-year growth in trade with China in 2020 with the value at 15.42 billion U.S. dollars,” Xinhua reported on January 12, citing official data from Ukraine’s State Customs Service.
“Bilateral trade turnover between Ukraine and China was 12.76 billion U.S. dollars in 2019,” the Chinese state-run press agency recalled.
“Ukraine’s main export products to China remained ore, grains, fats and oils, and metals, while the country imported electronics, machinery, equipment and vehicles,” according to Xinhua.
“Ukraine faces backlash for its strengthening relations with China, especially after withdrawing its support for a call for more scrutiny of human rights violations in China’s western region of Xinjiang,” the Kyiv Post noted on Wednesday.
“Associated Press, citing its sources, reported that China pressured Ukraine, threatening to withhold Chinese-made COVID-19 [Chinese coronavirus] vaccines supplies. The Chinese Embassy in Ukraine denied accusations,” according to the Ukrainian newspaper.
The Kyiv Post referred to a June 25 article by the Associated Press (AP) in which the news agency cited unidentified “diplomats from two Western countries” who alleged Ukraine “pulled its name off” a list of nations calling for an official probe into China’s extralegal detention of ethnic minority groups in Xinjiang “after Chinese authorities warned Kyiv that they would block a planned shipment of at least 500,000 doses of COVID-19 [Chinese coronavirus] vaccines to Ukraine unless it did so.”
“Ukraine has agreed to purchase 1.9 million doses of CoronaVac vaccine from China’s [state-run] Sinovac Biotech. As of early May, Ukraine had received 1.2 million doses, according to Health Minister Maxim Stepanov,” the AP noted at the time.
Ukraine’s decision to accept China’s vaccine shipment comes as part of greater trade commitment between the two nations through Beijing’s infrastructure-building Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which Ukraine joined in about 2018. The two countries signed their latest BRI deal on June 30, just six days after Ukraine withdrew its name from the Human Rights Council’s list of nations denouncing Chinese concentration camps in Xinjiang.
President Zelensky’s administration appeared to warm up to Chinese trade prospects in late June partly in response to the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden dismissing a request by Zelensky to meet with him in person first before meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on June 16 in Geneva, Switzerland. Zelensky requested his in-person meeting with Biden through a June 6 interview with the Washington, DC-based news outlet Axios.
The Ukrainian president was quoted in the same interview as saying he had been “very unpleasantly surprised” by Biden’s comments earlier in May indicating he would not sanction Russia’s Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline to Europe, which threatens Ukrainian gas prospects. Just two days after his meeting with Putin in Geneva, Politico reported that Biden had chosen to freeze $100 in military aid to Kyiv, including lethal weapons used in Ukraine’s fight against Russian-allied militias in the country’s eastern Donbas region.