China is currently hosting the third “Meeting of Foreign Ministers of the Neighboring Countries of Afghanistan” in Tunxi, Anhui, which will run from March 30 to 31.
Headed by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, the meeting will be attended by Iran, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan – the same countries that participated in the second Meeting of Foreign Ministers of the Neighboring Countries of Afghanistan in Iran in October 2021.
Taliban’s acting foreign minister, Amir Khan Muttaqi, will also be in attendance, following Wang’s surprise visit to Kabul earlier this month. The foreign ministers of Indonesia and Qatar are attending as guests.
“China looks forward to pooling more consensus on the Afghan issue from neighboring countries,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said on March 28.
“We hope to further understand the Afghan people’s difficulties and needs, convey neighboring countries’ concerns on the Afghan issue, and work on the Afghan side to build an open and inclusive political structure, follow moderate and prudent domestic and foreign policies and earnestly combat terrorism.”
Under other circumstances, the meeting would likely have stood out mostly for the inclusion of Muttaqi, a representative of the Taliban government in Afghanistan, which none of the other states in attendance have formally recognized. But amid Russia’s continuing invasion of Ukraine, the presence of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov – on his first visit to China, and his first trip overseas not directly related to Ukraine negotiations, since the invasion began – stole headlines.
By inviting Lavrov, China gave Moscow an opportunity to push back against Western claims that Russia has been isolated. While in Anhui, the Russian foreign minister held bilateral meetings not only with Wang but with the foreign ministers of Pakistan, Iran, and Indonesia, as well as Uzbekistan’s deputy prime minister. He posed for jaunty “elbow bump” photos that were plastered on the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Twitter account, sending the literal image that Moscow is conducting diplomacy as usual, despite widespread sanctions and the ostracization of Russia by Europe, the United States, and Asia-Pacific countries like South Korea and Japan.
(Interestingly, Anhui will also be the site of a rare multilateral engagement including both Russia and the United States. China’s Foreign Ministry announced that it will be hosting an “extended meeting of the China-US-Russia consultation mechanism on the Afghan issue” on the sidelines of the main meeting. The U.S. State Department clarified that Lavrov will not attend the sideline meeting, which involves the countries’ special representatives on Afghan affairs.)
In the lead-up to the meeting, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokespersons repeatedly declined to confirm reports that Lavrov would be attending, despite Moscow having made its own announcement. After finally confirming Lavrov’s participation on March 28, China then played coy on whether Wang Yi would hold a separate bilateral meeting with Lavrov on the sidelines of the multilateral talks.
However, on Wednesday Wang did indeed hold a separate meeting with Lavrov. Wang declared that “China-Russia relations have withstood the test of the changing international situation, ensured the right direction and demonstrated a strong momentum of development,” according to a summary from China’s state-owned CGTN.
“Both sides are more determined to develop bilateral relations and more confident in advancing cooperation in various fields, Wang said,” according to CGTN.
The signal couldn’t be clearer: Amid the Ukraine war, Beijing is doubling down on its relationship with Russia, not backing away. Indeed, the two are apparently more committed than ever to pursue their vision – as laid out in a February 4, 2022 joint statement between Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin – of challenging U.S. dominance over the world order. In a read-out of the Lavrov-Wang meeting from China’s Foreign Ministry, Lavrov phrased this as Sino-Russian cooperation to “actively promote the process of multipolarization” and “oppose hegemony and power politics” on global and multilateral platforms.
According to the read-out, the two sides “exchanged views and coordinated positions on multilateral affairs including the Asia-Pacific situation, Korean Peninsula issue, BRICS mechanism and Shanghai Cooperation Organization.”
Of course, Ukraine also featured prominently in the discussion. China’s Foreign Ministry said that Lavrov had briefed Wang on “the negotiations between Russia and Ukraine” and reiterated that “Russia is committed to de-escalating tensions.” Russia’s continued bombing of Ukrainian cities would suggest otherwise, but unsurprisingly that went unmentioned in the China-Russia talks.
For his part, Wang threw China’s backing behind the ongoing peace negotiations between Russia and Ukraine and also offered China’s support for efforts – Russian efforts, first and foremost – to address the humanitarian crisis.
In the context of their discussion on Ukraine, Wang noted that China “has always upheld objectivity and fairness in international affairs, and always stood on the right side of history” – a talking point adopted to rebut Western accusations that support for Russia places China on the “wrong side of history.” Wang emphasized the “complex history and origins” of the “Ukraine issue” – notably, he avoided referring to even a “conflict,” much less a “war” – and placed the blame on “the Cold War mentality” and the “long-term accumulation of security contradictions in Europe.” While Wang was not as explicit about blaming NATO as Chinese officials have been at other times, the implication was clear nonetheless.
Wang’s main takeaway from “the Ukraine crisis” is worth considering in full:
In the long run, we should learn the lessons of the Ukraine crisis, respond to the legitimate security concerns of all parties based on the principles of mutual respect and indivisibility of security, and build a balanced, effective and sustainable European security architecture through dialogue and negotiation, so as to achieve long-term stability in Europe.
Cutting through the diplomatic parlance, China’s message is that Europe should “learn” from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to respect Moscow’s security concerns. Creating a new “sustainable European security architecture” is code for cutting the United States and NATO out of the European security picture, and bringing Russia in.
That message is unlikely to be popular among European leaders. Beijing will soon find out how those comments were received in Brussels and beyond. On April 1, the day after Lavrov departs Anhui, China will be holding a virtual summit with the EU.