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From Beijing to London, Blinken pushes for Ukraine peace deal and recovery

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Britain's Foreign Secretary James Cleverly attend an event at the Ukrainian Welcome Center at the Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral, in London, on June 20, 2023
Leah Millis
POOL/AFP via Getty Images
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Britain's Foreign Secretary James Cleverly attend an event at the Ukrainian Welcome Center at the Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral, in London, on June 20, 2023

LONDON — Fresh from his trip to China, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken turns his attention to Ukraine as he meets U.K. officials in London ahead of a two-day conference focused on Ukraine's post-war recovery.

The Ukraine Recovery Conference, which starts Wednesday, will see Blinken, U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen address the conference. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy plans to attend virtually.

"Ukraine's bravery on the battlefield must be matched by the vision of the private sector to help the country rebuild and recover," Sunak is expected to say, in comments released by Downing Street in advance of the conference.

Blinken's trip to London comes after his meeting Monday with Chinese leader Xi Jinping. Speaking to NPR's Morning Edition afterward, Blinken described two days of diplomatic talks in China as "candid, substantive, and constructive," while acknowledging the two superpowers had "profound differences."

America's top diplomat also said he would welcome China's involvement in negotiating an end to the Ukraine war.

"We've applauded some of the parts of the peace principles that they put out, very consistent with our own, particularly when it comes to protecting Ukraine's territorial integrity and sovereignty," Blinken told NPR. "China playing that role would be positive. So it's good."

China might be well positioned to negotiate end to war

While China has not condemned Russia's invasion of Ukraine, and maintains close ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Chinese leader Xi Jinping spoke with Ukraine's president Volodymyr Zelenskyy in April, and Beijing's peace envoy made tripsto both Moscow and Kyiv in May. So Beijing may be uniquely placed to negotiate and get some sort of a compromise – if the two sides could come to the negotiating table, which currently looks unlikely.

It would not be the first time China has played an important role in mediating recent conflicts.

"China has gone, particularly to countries which are no longer very friendly towards the United States – Iran would be a good example — and used its economic links and its long history of diplomatic connection with them, to try and essentially broker agreements that lead to regional peace," says Rana Mitter, a historian and China expert at the University of Oxford. "Iran-Saudi Arabia is the best example of that in recent years."

But Mitter says China's refusal to take sides in the Ukraine conflict could also hinder its ability to broker a peace deal.

"Ukraine wants any honest broker to start from the position that Ukraine's sovereignty has been violated, and China's also reluctant to say that," he notes. "So there are still a lot of twists and turns in China's diplomacy."

But countries wary of China's role

Other countries attending the Ukraine Recovery Conference may be wary of the role China wants to play, says Mujtaba Rahman, managing director for Europe at the Eurasia Group, a risk analysis firm.

"The Chinese can build political support, allegiance, connections through undertaking a massive large-scale capital reconstruction program," Rahman says. "So there is a lot of concern in Europe about competition with the Chinese for hearts and minds in Ukraine, once the war has stopped."

China has built massive infrastructure projects around the world. These projects create jobs for Chinese workers and are an important part of keeping the Chinese economy going. China has already been involved in building parts of the metro network in Kyiv.

The Ukraine conference in London, which kicks off on Wednesday, is focused on planning for what happens if and when the war ends. The European Commission announced Tuesday millions more in recovery funds for Ukraine.

NPR correspondent Lauren Frayer contributed to this story from London. contributed to this story

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Fatima Al-Kassab
[Copyright 2024 NPR]