Chinese President Xi Jinping has begun to insert himself more directly into world affairs, having helped broker a deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran to normalize relations and proposed a bare-bones peace deal for the Russia-Ukraine war.
Xi is becoming more aggressive on the world stage as Joe Biden and America retreat. He is moving into the diplomatic vacuum created by Biden’s failures and the American president’s lack of energy in pursuing American interests.
Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin will meet next week, and the war in Ukraine will certainly be a topic of interest. Xi may very well call President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine afterward. Exerting himself in an area far from China’s sphere of influence in the eastern Pacific is just one indication that Xi may be preparing to play a much larger role in Ukraine.
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The consequences of Biden’s quiescence are on display in Europe. If Xi were to solidify his alliance with Moscow by giving weapons to Putin’s depleted arsenal, the balance of power will have shifted decisively in Xi’s favor.
At stake for Beijing is its push for legitimacy as leader of an alternative world order to the one dominated by the United States, a role it has sought with growing urgency to resist what Mr. Xi described as Washington’s “containment, encirclement and suppression of China.”
Skepticism abounds in the West about Mr. Xi’s intentions on the war, given his conflicting goals and interests. Beijing has never condemned Russia’s invasion and parrots the Kremlin’s assertion that the war was provoked by the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
“China’s international influence as a great power is required for peace now more than almost ever,” said Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing. The coup Xi pulled off by bringing together long-time bitter enemies in Tehran and Riyadh has given the Chinese president newfound clout on the world stage.
Both Russia and Ukraine share the same outlook on China; Beijing’s support for either side could be a game changer.
For Moscow, the bar for peace talks is high. Russia has rejected Western demands to withdraw troops as a condition for talks. Mr. Putin, in meeting with Mr. Xi, will likely prioritize asking for help replenishing stocks of military-grade components and increasing exports to China to fatten the Kremlin’s war chest. It will also give Russia a chance to emphasize that it has not been isolated by the global community.
For Ukraine, China has long represented a potential lifeline, holding enough sway over Russia to influence the war. Mr. Zelensky, with Washington’s encouragement, has sought to hold talks with Mr. Xi for months. He even dispatched his wife, Olena Zelenska, to deliver to the Chinese delegation a letter requesting a meeting at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
If China were to supply Russia with heavy weapons, it would drive most of western Europe away from Beijing and may even trigger sanctions against China. That’s why Putin is going to be disappointed in his ally when it comes to resupplying Russia’s lethal armaments. They may supply Russia with some military components but beyond that, Beijing will not go.
“Beijing is agnostic about the conflict,” said Aleksandr Gabuev, an expert on Russia’s relations with Asia at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a research group. “What it wants is to prevent a catastrophic Russian defeat, which could threaten Putin.”
That’s easier said than done.