KYIV, UKRAINE — Chinese President Xi Jingping during a phone conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on April 26 expressed his support for the continuation of the Black Sea Grain Initiative, according to a Ukrainian government website.

During the hourlong conversation, the leaders discussed ways in which the two countries could cooperate regarding trade and other mutually beneficial actions, it said. It was the first conversation between Xi and Zelensky since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022.

In his nightly address to the nation, Zelensky said it is important that China “shares our views on freedom of navigation and trade.”

Prior to the Russian invasion, China was the largest importer of Ukraine wheat and corn. Since the Black Sea Grain Initiative began last July, after a five-month period in which Russia blockaded Ukrainian ports to prevent inbound and outbound shipments, Ukraine has shipped nearly 29 million tonnes of grain via its port system, including nearly 7 million to China.

China, with the world’s second largest population of 1.4 billion, has been seeking to strengthen relationships with major grain-producing nations, including Brazil and several other South American countries, to help ensure its food security.  

China has taken an official position of neutrality in the war and has maintained a friendly relationship with Russia throughout the conflict. Last month, Xi made a trip to Moscow to visit with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Putin has threatened to withdraw from the Black Sea Grain Initiative when the deal expires on May 18 if its demands for a reduction of Western economic sanctions are not met. Russia has said that its participation in the grain deal was in doubt unless the sanctions that it says are impeding its own grain and fertilizer exports are removed. Western sanctions do not specifically target food and fertilizer exports, but Russia has said restrictions on payments, logistics and insurance are a barrier to its shipments.