Chinese President Xi Jinping is embarking on his first visit to Russia since the country’s invasion of Ukraine last year, and is set to sit down for talks with President Vladimir Putin.
Our Russia editor Steve Rosenberg and China correspondent Stephen McDonnell have been reflecting on what each side seeks to gain from the talks, and what we know about the relationship between the two countries.
Putin is looking for help from a friend
Imagine that you are Vladimir Putin.
You started a war that was not planned. You are putting penalties on your eyeballs. And now the International Criminal Court has issued an arrest warrant for war crimes with your name on it.
At times like these you need a friend.
President Xi once called President Putin his “best friend”. The two have a lot in common: Both are authoritarian leaders, and both embrace the idea of a “multipolar world” free of American hegemony.
In Moscow, they are expected to sign an agreement on “deepening the comprehensive partnership” between the two countries.
The Chinese president’s state visit is a clear sign of support for Russia – and its president – at a time when the Kremlin is under intense international pressure.
And Russia’s relationship with China is essential to bear this.
Journalist Dmitry Muratov, a former Nobel Peace Prize laureate, believes that “Putin is building his own bloc. He no longer trusts the West – and never will again.”
“Therefore, Putin is looking for allies and trying to make Russia part of a common fortress with China, as well as with India, and some parts of Latin America and Africa. Putin is building his anti-Western world.”
In this “anti-Western world,” Moscow relies heavily on Beijing — now more than ever, with the war raging in Ukraine.
“The war has become the organizing principle of Russian domestic politics, foreign policy, and economic policy. There is an obsession with destroying Ukraine,” concludes Aleksandr Gabiev, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“For that you need weapons, money and an economic lifeline. China provides Russia, at least, with components for weapons, civilian technology that can be used for military purposes. It certainly saves money.”
To counter Western sanctions and support the Russian economy, Russia has boosted trade with China, particularly in the energy sector. Expect oil, gas and energy pipelines to be on the agenda of Putin and Xi’s talks.
But, again, imagine that you are Putin. A year ago, you and Xi declared your partnership to be “limitless.” If that was really the case, would you expect China to now help you in Ukraine, by supplying lethal aid to Russia and facilitating a military victory for Moscow? The US claims that China is considering doing just that. Beijing denies this.
As they say in Russia, “there is no harm in wanting something”—but that doesn’t mean it will happen. If there is one thing this past year has shown it is that Partnership Without Borders has limits. Up until this point, Beijing had apparently been reluctant to provide direct military assistance to Moscow, for fear of secondary sanctions in the West against Chinese companies. Regarding Beijing: Sorry Russia… It’s China first.
This point was made explicitly recently on a talk show on Russian state television.
“Before President Xi’s visit to Moscow, some experts here were very cheerful and elated,” noted military expert Mikhail Khodarinok.
“But China can only have one ally: China itself. China can only have one set of interests: pro-Chinese interests. Chinese foreign policy is completely altruistic.”
Xi’s references to Putin can only go three ways
Xi Jinping’s state visit to Russia aims to boost bilateral relations between two neighbors, and certainly these two governments say they are getting closer than ever.
There are agreements to be signed, meals, photo opportunities.
All governments have such visits, so why so much attention to this visit?
Well, for example, here’s the leader of one of the world’s two superpowers visiting an ally – who also happens to be the one who launched a bloody invasion of another country in Europe – in the year 2023.
Many analysts pondered what China might do if Russia appeared to be facing a clear and humiliating defeat on the battlefield.
The Chinese government says it is neutral. Will you back off and let that happen, or start pumping in weapons to give the Russian military a better advantage?
After Xi’s arrival in Moscow, he and his Russian counterpart may talk about other things, but all attention will be on the Ukraine crisis.
His references to Vladimir Putin can only go three ways:
1. It’s time to consider stepping back with some face-saving compromises
2. Green light to continue or even go harder
3. Nothing either way from the leader of China
With the first option, if Beijing is once again able to claim the mantle of global peacemaker after the Iran-Saudi deal, that would be a neat feather in Xi’s cap.
The main problem with this option is how much it will benefit China.
The bleakest option is the second, but there is a reading that Russia’s war with Ukraine plays into Beijing’s geopolitical strategy. The Kremlin antagonizes the West, consumes NATO resources, and the longer the war drags on, the more it will test the Western public’s appetite for more conflict if the People’s Liberation Army should move to take over Taiwan by force.
The calculation from Beijing may be that the longer a war goes on, the fewer people will want to take part in another war.
Nor does the Chinese government’s claim to neutrality match the state-controlled news reporting here. Evening TV broadcasts run the Kremlin line and devote a large proportion of their coverage to blaming the “West” for the “conflict”. He does not talk about “war” and would never dream of referring to the “invasion” of Ukraine.
Publicly, China says that the sovereignty of all countries (i.e. Ukraine) should be respected, but that the “legitimate security concerns” of other countries (i.e. Russia) should also be respected.
However, Kiev is not the place that Xi Jinping is visiting. It’s Moscow.
Therefore, when Xi leaves Moscow in a few days, Putin will either be concerned about fluctuating Chinese support or buoyed by the support of one of the two most powerful people on the planet.
The smart money seems to be in for the latter.
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