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In Beijing, Xi and Putin Solidify Partnership In Defiance of West
In Beijing, Xi and Putin Solidify Partnership In Defiance of West

In Beijing, Xi and Putin Solidify Partnership In Defiance of West

Last week, Chinese leader Xi Jinping hosted Russian President Vladimir Putin in Beijing, only weeks after his first trip to Europe in five years. While E.U. and French leaders pressed Xi to make greater efforts in halting Russia’s war against Ukraine, his summit with Putin suggests that Xi has no intention of casting aside his country’s close ties with Russia. This mirrors the outcome of Xi’s visit to Moscow last year. As David Pierson summarized for The New York Times, Xi and Putin have embraced in defiance of the Western-led world order:

Mr. Xi’s talks with Mr. Putin this week were a show of solidarity between two autocrats battling Western pressure. The two leaders put out a lengthy statement that denounced what they saw as American interference and bullying and laid out their alignment on China’s claim to self-ruled Taiwan and Russia’s “legitimate security interests” in Ukraine.

They pledged to expand economic and military ties, highlighted by Mr. Putin’s visit to a cutting-edge Chinese institute for defense research. Mr. Xi even initiated a cheek-to-cheek hug as he bade Mr. Putin farewell on Thursday after an evening stroll in the Chinese Communist Party leadership compound in Beijing.

Western leaders looking for signs of any meaningful divergence between Mr. Xi and Mr. Putin, particularly on the war in Ukraine, would find none. Neither the risk of alienating Europe, a key trading partner needed to help revive China’s struggling economy, nor the threat of U.S. sanctions targeting Chinese banks that aid Russia’s war effort appeared to deter Mr. Xi’s embrace of Mr. Putin.

“The overarching goal of both Putin and Xi is to fight back against what they perceive as their existential enemy, which is the United States and the U.S.-led international order,” said Alicja Bachulska, an expert on Chinese foreign policy at the European Council on Foreign Relations. For China, “Yes, there are tensions with the West, but these tensions won’t lead to any kind of qualitative change in the way China has been approaching Russia and the war in Ukraine.” [Source]

Before his arrival, Putin published an interview with Xinhua. There were numerous trending topics on Weibo related to his visit, many of them in the top ten ranking (including his interview), but the generally low number of comments around them suggested either a low level of netizen engagement, or official censorship. At the Associated Press, Huizhong Wu and Emily Wang Fujiyama underlined the message being sent to the West:

[Putin] had a back-handed rebuke for the U.S., and others who oppose the Moscow-Beijing relationship, saying an “emerging multipolar world … is now taking shape before our eyes.”

“And it is important that those who are trying to maintain their monopoly on decision-making in the world on all issues … do everything in their power to ensure that this process goes naturally,” he said.

Both Russia and China have frequently spoken of the “emerging multipolar world” in response to what they view as U.S. hegemony.

Joseph Torigian, a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institute, said the message being sent by China and Russia was clear: “At this moment, they’re reminding the West that they can be defiant when they want to. [Source]

Despite Western criticism of China’s stance on Ukraine, the benefits of Xi’s warm relationship with Putin appear to outweigh the costs. “A shared antagonism towards the US will prevent tensions between China and Russia from coming to the fore,” wrote Gideon Rachman in a Financial Times op-ed titled, “The relationship between Xi and Putin is built to last.” Yu Jie, Senior Research Fellow on China at Chatham House, argued that “China’s alignment with Putin is uneasy. But its rivalry with the US makes him too useful to abandon,” adding that “the war in Ukraine helps Beijing undermine US diplomacy”:

China’s strong inclination to sustain its ties with Russia go well beyond the Kremlin’s military adventure. Its return on investments is still framed by its response to the US’s pursuit of a China containment strategy. Beijing believes its relations with Moscow might well bring a necessary (if imperfect) solution in dealing with US policy in both economic and diplomatic terms.

[…] In diplomatic terms, Beijing’s long-term alignment with Russia is increasingly bound to their common resentment of US hegemony, not by shared values – something the NATO alliance has always struggled to comprehend. 

Deepened bilateral cooperation in recent years has allowed the two countries to demonstrate great-power status on the world stage to counterbalance US dominance.

[…] Isolation from the collective West looks like an unattractive option to China. But siding with the West against its nuclear neighbour in the north, with over 4000km of shared borders, is even worse for Beijing – at a time when the US is building a lattice of alliances to its south. [Source]

Former diplomat Shi Jiangtao concurred in an op-ed for the South China Morning Post titled, “Putin’s China visit confirms West’s worst fears about emerging Beijing-Moscow axis”:

Beijing is doubtlessly aware of the high stakes behind its decision to pivot towards Moscow, which risks inviting Western sanctions, further straining US ties and alienating most of Europe.

The fact that Beijing is doubling down on its bet on Putin’s war against the West shows that stabilising ties with Moscow is probably its overriding priority at the moment.

Despite the danger of turning the new cold war into a self-fulfilling prophecy, Beijing cannot afford to lose its influence over Moscow as Washington’s alliance-building approach in the Indo-Pacific has left China increasingly isolated. [Source]

Some in the media used the Beijing summit to probe differences between the two leaders. The Economist argued, “Xi Jinping is subtler than Vladimir Putin—yet equally disruptive.” Highlighting other differences, Laura Bicker from the BBC argued that while Xi and Putin project close ties between each other and their countries, the summit revealed that they no longer have a partnership of equals:

Russian and Chinese state media focused heavily on the camaraderie between the two leaders. But in truth, this is no longer a partnership of equals.

Mr Putin came to China cap in hand, eager for Beijing to continue trading with a heavily sanctioned and isolated Russia. His statements were filled with honeyed tones and flattering phrases.

He said that his family were learning Mandarin – this was particularly noteworthy because he very rarely talks about his children in public.

He declared that he and Mr Xi were “as close as brothers” and went on to praise China’s economy, saying it was “developing in leaps and bounds, at a fast pace”. This will likely play well with Beijing officials worried by a sluggish economy.

But Mr Xi himself did not echo the tone of these lofty compliments. Instead, his remarks were more perfunctory – even bland. Mr Putin, he said, was a “good friend and a good neighbour”. For China, the welcome ceremony and show of unity is in its interests, but lavishing its guest with praise is not. [Source]

Be that as it may, the two countries’ economic ties play an important role in supporting Putin’s war in Ukraine. “For Putin, it’s a glory moment that Russia is still on its feet (economically) … mostly because of the lifeline provided by China,” said Alexandra Prokopenko, a fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center, adding, “he’s okay with on-going dependency between Russia and China – and with inequality in this relationship.” Kimberly Donovan, director of the Economic Statecraft Initiative within the Atlantic Council’s GeoEconomics Center, highlighted China’s crucial role in helping Russia evade Western sanctions over Ukraine: 

Putin and Xi’s latest meeting further confirms our assessments that China has become the economic lifeline for Russia in the wake of Western sanctions. Over the past two years, China has become Russia’s primary trading partner and continues to import Russian commodities, especially oil. The two countries are trading in Chinese yuan and Russian rubles, which allows them to circumvent Western sanctions because the transactions are taking place outside of the US dollar, euro, and other Group of Seven (G7) sanctions coalition currencies. We assess that China is moving this activity to its smaller regional banks to protect its largest financial institutions with Western ties from direct sanctions exposure and the threat of US secondary sanctions. However, these transactions are still taking place and providing the revenue Russia needs to continue its war in Ukraine. [Source]