Exclusive-China pushes rival Ukraine peace plan before Swiss summit, diplomats say

By Laurie Chen and Liz Lee

BEIJING (Reuters) -China, skipping a weekend summit on a peace plan for Ukraine, has been lobbying governments for its alternative plan, 10 diplomats said, with one calling Beijing's campaign a "subtle boycott" of the global meeting in Switzerland.

Ninety states and organisations have registered to take part in the summit on Saturday and Sunday in the alpine resort of Lucerne, which will seek to build support for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy's peace proposals, including the full withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine.

Moscow, which was not invited to Lucerne, has dismissed the meeting as futile. China, which has close ties to Russia, says it will not attend the conference because it does not meet Beijing's requirements, including the participation of Russia.

China and Russia proclaimed a "no limits" partnership just days before President Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Russia's smaller neighbour in February 2022. Beijing says it is neutral in the conflict and has not supplied Moscow with weapons or ammunition.

After China said it was not going to the Lucerne summit, Zelenskiy accused Beijing of helping Moscow undermine the meeting, an accusation China's foreign ministry denied.

Ukraine, the United States and other Western governments had lobbied hard for China to attend the talks, as they seek legitimacy for the summit and a broad consensus on a roadmap to a future peace process.

In conversations with developing nations, China has not overtly criticised the Swiss summit or directly asked countries to abstain, the Beijing-based diplomats told Reuters.

But one who was briefed on the outreach said Beijing has told developing nations the meeting would prolong the war, while two diplomats with direct knowledge of the matter said China has been telling Western nations that many developing countries are aligned with its views on the conference.

The diplomats asked not to be named because they were not authorised to discuss the sensitive matter with the news media.

Responding to Reuters' questions, China's foreign ministry said its position on the Swiss conference was "fair, just and open".

"China has been in close communication with relevant parties, including Switzerland and Ukraine, and encourages the equal participation of all parties at the conference as well as fair discussion of all plans," spokesperson Lin Jin told a routine briefing on Friday.

Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said last week: "China sincerely hopes that a peace conference will not turn into a platform used to create bloc confrontation. Not attending it does not mean not supporting peace."

MEETINGS, CALLS, WECHAT MESSAGES

As the summit approaches, China has intensified its outreach through meetings with visiting foreign dignitaries, phone calls and messages to foreign missions on China's WeChat platform, diplomats said.

Beijing's special envoy for Eurasian affairs, Li Hui, last month visited Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates and has met officials of developing countries at their embassies in Beijing, the diplomats said.

While explaining why it will not attend the summit, China has been trying to enlist developing nations to join the six-point peace plan it issued with Brazil last month.

The proposal calls for an international peace conference "held at a proper time that is recognised by both Russia and Ukraine, with equal participation of all parties as well as fair discussion of all peace plans."

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has suggested that China could arrange such a conference. Putin has expressed support for China's plan for a peaceful settlement of the crisis, saying Beijing had a full understanding of what lay behind it.

The Chinese foreign ministry's Lin said more than 100 countries had supported the proposal, "reflecting the common expectations of the international community and the biggest common denominator in the world today."

Lin added, "We encourage even more countries to support and join the six-point consensus."

Reuters could not independently determine what impact China's lobbying has had, but the number of registered participants at the Lucerne summit is down from the 107 that Zelenskiy's office had said were confirmed by early June.

In Asia, U.S. allies the Philippines and Japan, as well as Thailand, Singapore and East Timor have confirmed their attendance. Malaysia has said it will abstain, as has Cambodia, which has close economic links to China. Cambodia's Senate President Hun Sen denied being pressured by Beijing to avoid the conference.

Indonesia will send its ambassador in Bern. Vietnam has not made its position clear.

(Reporting by Laurie Chen and Liz Lee in Beijing; Additional reporting by Joe Cash in Beijing, Gayatri Suroyo, Stanley Widianto and Kate Lamb in Jakarta, Fanny Potkin in Singapore, Panu Wongcha-um, Devjyot Ghoshal, Shoon Naing and Kay Johnson in Bangkok, Prak Chan Thul in Phnom Penh, Francesco Guarascio in Hanoi, Rozanna Latiff in Kuala Lumpur and Karen Lema in Manila; Editing by William Mallard and Clarence Fernandez)