Madrid, Spain – When Chinese President Xi Jinping meets Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez in Beijing this week, they will ostensibly be celebrating half a century of diplomatic relations by discussing economic and trade ties.
However, the real subject for conversation between the two leaders will be the fate of Ukraine, analysts said, as Spain is about to join international efforts to end the invasion by Russia.
Spain has been thrust centre-stage as a possible diplomatic interlocutor in the conflict because it takes over the European Union’s rotating presidency in July at a time when Europe is experiencing its first major land war since World War II.
The Spanish premier will be keen to let the Chinese Communist Party leader know when they meet on Friday that he believes Ukraine should have a right to decide on any possible peace agreement with Russia.
On February 24, exactly one year after Russia invaded Ukraine, Xi published a 12-point plan which China claimed offered a path out of the crisis in Ukraine. The plan received a cool reception from Western leaders who claimed China lacked credibility – and impartiality regarding Moscow – to lead peace efforts.
Xi, on a two-day visit to Moscow last week, made it clear to observers that he sees himself as a global mediator, including in the war between Moscow and Kyiv.
Sánchez has made no secret of the fact he wants to use the visit to China to drive home his views on what he called the “global crisis” caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The Spanish premier said that during his state visit to China he would push for a fair peace in the war in Ukraine, one which guaranteed “territorial integrity”.
“The most important thing…is that when this peace is reached in Ukraine, it will be fair and lasting… and when we talk about fair, I mean that the territorial integrity of Ukraine, which has been violated by Russia, is respected,” Sánchez said during a news conference on Saturday at a meeting of Latin American leaders in the Dominican Republic.
At the same time, Sánchez said the world should listen to China’s plan for peace.
“China is a global actor, so obviously we must listen to its voice to see if between all of us, we can put an end to this war and Ukraine can recover its territorial integrity,” he said on Friday during a meeting in Madrid.
Earlier, the Spanish leader said any peace talks must be based on respect for international order established by the United Nations.
Sánchez also said it was important that Spain play a role at “such a complicated moment in geopolitical difficulties”.
‘Spain could be key’
Mario Esteban, senior investigator on Asia at the Real Elcano Institute, a think tank in Madrid, said all eyes will be on whether Spain can play a role in forging a peace deal in Ukraine.
“Spain has spent a lot of time talking to China about Ukraine,” Esteban said.
“Sánchez spoke to Xi in Bali [G20 conference in November] and [Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel] Albares spoke to Qin Gang [Chinese foreign minister] in New Delhi earlier this month,” he told Al Jazeera.
“Spain understands that China is an important diplomatic interlocutor for Ukraine. At the same time, Spain has the EU presidency. So, for China, there is a major interest in trying to see if Spain can play a role.”
Esteban said Spain has been clear that it believes Ukraine should decide its own future, but it remains to be seen if Spain can help to secure a peace deal.
“At times, things like this start with great expectations but we have to see what happens,” he said.
Sánchez has been keen for Spain to play a greater role on the international stage since coming to power in 2018. Spain is also a staunch supporter of NATO and has had United States fighter jets based at two military bases in the south of the country for decades as part of a deal with Washington.
Since Brexit lessened Britain’s role in Europe and Italy voted for an unstable right-wing coalition government, Spain has assumed a more important role in Europe.
Ruth Ferrero, an expert in European relations at the University of Complutense in Madrid, said China was trying to act as a global mediator in the war between Russia and Ukraine, and Spain was in a good position to participate in peace efforts.
“All attempts at mediation take time. China wants to see if Spain, which takes the EU presidency in the second half of the year, could be involved,” she told Al Jazeera.
“The presidency of Spain could be key. It starts at a time when other factors are coming to fruition: the Leopard tanks will have arrived in Ukraine. On the other hand, you have the demand by the International Criminal Court to indict Putin for war crimes,” Ferrero said.
Ferrero said she believes that possible peace talks could come to fruition this summer.
The Spanish prime minister will hold commercial meetings during the Boao Forum for Asia on the Chinese island of Hainan on Thursday before travelling to Beijing to meet Xi on Friday.