The three-day trip to Moscow by Chinese President Xi Jinping is more symbolic than of any strategic importance. But underneath the bonhomie between Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin is a transformed relationship. All previous visits by Xi with Putin were characterized by Putin being the dominant partner in the relationship.
But the Ukraine War has exposed Putin and Russia’s weaknesses. It is now Xi who is the senior partner — and the Chinese president is playing his new role to the hilt.
Calling each other “dear friends,” the two met in informal talks for more than four hours on Monday with more formal talks held Tuesday between the delegations. But it’s events taking place outside Moscow that are going to drive this partnership — the most serious challenge to the West since the end of the Cold War.
“Xi Jinping wants to show the world that he’s a statesman,” said Brian Hart, a fellow with the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, adding that Beijing wants “to play a constructive role.”
But not at the expense of his main ally’s geopolitical position. That’s why any “peace” proposals by China for Ukraine are likely to mirror Russia’s proposals and not propose giving away anything that Putin hasn’t approved.
“The world should not be fooled by any tactical move by Russia, supported by China or any other country, to freeze the war on its own terms,” said U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Monday. The Chinese Foreign Ministry shot back on Tuesday that “the U.S. is in no position to point fingers at China.”
Regardless, both Putin and Xi share a similar worldview — and a hatred of the United States.
“They share a deep and abiding interest in undermining U.S. influence around the world,” said Bonnie Glaser, managing director of the Indo-Pacific program at the German Marshall Fund, a think tank based in Washington.
That ship has sailed for Putin. The Russian leader is losing influence in Europe while the U.S. and the West grow stronger.
Xi and Putin, who have met about 40 times since 2010, both reject what they see as efforts by the U.S. and its allies to impose their liberal democratic model on the rest of the world, and have sought to make their case to countries outside America’s network of alliances, she said.
In an unusually pointed speech this month singling out the U.S., Xi accused Washington of trying to hold back China’s progress.
“Western countries — led by the U.S. — have implemented all-round containment, encirclement, and suppression against us, bringing unprecedentedly severe challenges to our country’s development,” he said.
Victor Cha, who oversaw Asia policy on the White House National Security Council from 2004 to 2007, thinks that Xi’s aggressiveness towards the U.S. means he may be trying to prove something to the Chinese leadership.
“He’s got a lot of problems at home and he’s looking for ways to justify his third term by saying China is playing this big global role now, and provide a counternarrative to what he sees as the West’s narrative about the liberal democratic order,” said Cha.
“No model of governance is universal, and no single country should dictate the international order,” Xi said in an interview with a Russian newspaper prior to his trip.
China has imported $81 billion of Russian oil, coal, and natural gas in the last year, up from $52 billion the previous year. But Russia has been forced to sell that energy at a steep discount because of sanctions. The sales to China and a few other nations haven’t really helped the Russian economy.
Russia would dearly love China to supply its army. But beyond some ammunition, Beijing has refused Russian requests fearing — quite rightly — Western sanctions. Such sanctions would derail the already weak Chinese economy, leaving Xi in a difficult position. He wants to do everything he can to forestall a Russian defeat, but he can’t do too much or he damages his own position.
In short, Xi is as much at risk as Putin if Ukraine could defeat Russia. And despite his ascension to a new, dominant role in the partnership, Xi can only watch as the war plays out on the bloody plains of Ukraine.