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Xi Jinping’s desperate gamble on Vladimir Putin


Photo by Sergei Karpukhin/AP/Shutterstock

Xi Jinping arrived in Moscow to a rousing welcome from a Russian military brass band. Three days after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Vladimir Putin for war crimes including the mass abduction of children, and with the same military waging war on Ukraine, the Chinese leader acted as though this was normal behaviour.

“I am very glad, at the invitation of President Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, to come back to the land of our close neighbour on a state visit,” Xi told reporters at Vnukovo Airport in Moscow on 20 March, according to the Russian state-run news agency Tass. “China and Russia are good neighbours and reliable partners connected by mountains and rivers.” 

His hosts could barely contain their excitement.

Russian state television carried a live feed of Xi’s plane touching down at the airport, accompanied by breathless coverage of the prospects for increasing trade with Beijing. The message, intended for viewers watching at home and abroad was clear: we are not on our own, Russia is not a pariah state, China is sticking with us.

Both Putin and Xi had published articles in the People’s Daily, the Chinese Communist Party’s main newspaper, to coincide with the visit, which is their 40th in-person meeting in a relationship that has spanned 13 years. Putin quoted the Chinese philosopher Confucius as he exalted the “joy to have friends coming from afar” and how the two countries had become like “brothers”. He praised the strength of Sino-Russian relations, which he characterised as having reached the “highest level in their history” and surpassing “Cold War-time military-political alliances in their quality… without limitations or taboos.”

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Xi did not repeat the “no limits” formulation, which the two leaders used in a joint statement in February 2022 on the eve of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (in fact, the relationship has always been distinctly limited), but still, he painted a rosy picture of their partnership. China and Russia were “striding ahead to open a new chapter of friendship, co-operation and joint development,” he insisted, with both countries working “closely together in the international arena” to fulfil their “responsibilities as great powers” and “firmly uphold the international system with the United Nations at its core”.

[See also: This is how China wants the war in Ukraine to end]

His comments were breath-taking in their hypocrisy given that Russia was at that very moment trampling one of the UN Charter’s most important principles – and supposedly also one of China’s – by violating Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Xi still refuses to call Russia’s war against Ukraine a “war”, doggedly referring to the “Ukraine crisis” as though it is a natural phenomenon rather than a clear act of aggression. He has attempted to frame this trip as a “journey of peace”, insisting that China has always “urged peace and talks” and is ready to play a “constructive role” in finding a political settlement to the conflict. Following Beijing’s role in brokering a peace deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia this month, Xi’s comments have raised hopes in some quarters that he is preparing to use his leverage with Putin, who is now dependent on trade with China, to bring peace to Ukraine.

Yet this is unrealistic, even blind to Xi’s actions so far and his assessment of where China’s interests lie. He has yet to even acknowledge that Russia has invaded Ukraine, let alone to condemn its barbarism, or to speak with Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, despite repeated entreaties from Kyiv. (There are reports that he plans to hold a video call with Zelensky after his meetings in Moscow.) Much as the Chinese leader might prefer an end to a war that has reinvigorated Western alliances, soured relationships between Beijing and Europe, and hurt the global economy, he values his relationship with Putin more, despite the accompanying difficulties.

This is partly because of the intensifying contest between China and the United States, which Xi warned during a parliamentary session on 15 March now amounts to efforts at “all-round containment, encirclement and suppression against us”. He values Putin, as the leader of a long-established global power with a permanent seat at the UN Security Council and significant trading relationship with the Global South, as a partner in their shared competition with Washington. Beijing fears that if Russia is comprehensively defeated in Ukraine, then the US and its Western allies will be free to focus their full attention on China. Worse still, the collapse of Putin’s regime could bring a new pro-Western (or at least less vehemently anti-Western) government to power on the other side of their 4,000km border, which would represent a strategic nightmare for the Chinese leadership.

The long, troubled history of Sino-Russian relations has been fraught with mutual suspicion and periodic violent clashes. Beijing much prefers the current arrangement of relatively cordial ties and the upper hand in a beneficial trade relationship, which provides China with a secure source of energy imports and advanced military technology, as well as a crucial partner in its rivalry with the US.

This calculation, and the visit to Moscow, involves a significant gamble for Xi. If he succeeds in presenting this trip as a gallant peace mission then he will improve China’s global standing and his own reputation as a major player in international diplomacy. But if he fails then he will be left standing alongside a suspected war criminal, nodding along to the military band, as Beijing’s already troubled relationships with Europe sustain irreparable damage.

[See also: The poisoned peacemaker: why China can’t abandon Putin]