Jan 31, 2021 - Axios on HBO

Exclusive: Ukraine's Zelensky says he doesn't feel China threat

Photo: "Axios on HBO"

KYIV — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told "Axios on HBO" that he doesn't consider China to be a major geopolitical threat — a stance that may cause him friction with the Biden administration and Congress — even as he vowed to limit Chinese control of critical technology sectors.

Why it matters: Zelensky's comments represent a break with U.S. national security leaders from both major political parties who are trying to rally allies to confront the threat of the Chinese Communist Party.

Driving the news: Asked about emerging consensus in Washington that China is the No. 1 geopolitical threat, Zelensky said, "I cannot agree with that because in Ukraine we do not feel this."

  • "There really is this a sort of cold war between China and the United States," he said.
  • "We know United States business is represented in Ukraine, but at the same time, it's true that Chinese business is also represented."
  • "I believe that regardless of the nation, the nationality, if people, if business, if a certain country, treats you with respect, respecting your people and borders, they can be present in your country."

Between the lines: There's only so much leverage the U.S. has to push Zelensky away from China. Beijing has crushed Washington at vaccine diplomacy — a painful reality that Zelensky discussed in the "Axios on HBO" interview.

  • Zelensky has tried to obtain for his country the higher-quality American vaccines. And he’s pushed the Europeans for their help. But given the difficulty he’s faced to secure doses, he said he is willing to work with Beijing to get large quantities of a safe COVID vaccine for the Ukrainian people.  
  • Worth noting: The U.S. did not offer its superior vaccines to Ukraine and in fact took steps to make it harder for Zelensky to obtain them.

Behind the scenes: How to handle China is a growing sore point in U.S.-Ukraine relations. Trump administration officials privately expressed concerns that China — which became Ukraine's top trading partner in 2019 — was flooding Ukraine with easy cash and in return embedding itself in Ukraine's critical sectors including defense and telecom.

  • U.S. officials are worried about China stealing intelligence secrets and wielding nefarious influence over allies who are increasingly beholden to Beijing.

Yes, but: Senior U.S. government officials have been trying for years to persuade Ukraine to stop China from buying Motor Sich, an aero engine manufacturer that is the crown jewel of Ukraine's defense sector.

  • In the interview, Zelensky said for the first time definitively that he will not allow China, or any other country, to buy a controlling stake in Motor Sich.
  • "Never," he said. "Not under me. I am not here for life... [But] in my time [in office], definitely not.

The bottom line: Russia is a far more imminent concern for Ukraine. But when Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, China never condemned Russia's action. So while Zelensky may not call out China as a threat, he knows that China can't be relied upon in a Russia-Ukraine crisis.

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