Xi’s Visit to Putin Reinforces Ties, Opposes U.S., Sidelines Ukraine

On Wednesday, Xi Jinping concluded a three-day visit to Moscow, where he reaffirmed his friendship with Vladimir Putin and their respective counties’ “no limits” partnership, both of which have weathered Russia’s war against Ukraine. While Xi’s visit was supposed to “show China’s efforts in promoting peace and talks,” as the Global Times explained, the statements and symbolism emerging from his trip paint China as being far from neutral. As Chris Buckley from The New York Times reported, “Instead of focusing on a solution to the war in Ukraine, the Chinese leader’s visit to Moscow reinforced China and Russia’s shared opposition to American dominance”:

China’s leader, Xi Jinping, flew into Moscow this week cast by Beijing as its emissary for peace in Ukraine. His summit with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, however, demonstrated that his priority remains shoring up ties with Moscow to gird against what he sees as a long campaign by the United States to hobble China’s ascent.

Talk of Ukraine was overshadowed by Mr. Xi’s vow of ironclad solidarity with Russia as a political, diplomatic, economic and military partner: two superpowers aligned in countering American dominance and a Western-led world order. The summit showed Mr. Xi’s intention to entrench Beijing’s tilt toward Moscow against what he recently called an effort by the United States at the full-fledged “containment” of China.

Mr. Xi and Mr. Putin used the pomp of the three-day state visit that ended on Wednesday to signal to their publics and to Western capitals that the bond between their two countries remained robust and, in their eyes, indispensable, 13 months after Mr. Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine. They laid out their vision for the world in a nine-point joint statement that covered everything from Taiwan to climate change and relations with Mongolia, often depicting the United States as the obstacle to a better, fairer world. [Source]

Experts stated that what was really driving the meeting between the two leaders was China and Russia’s inclination to bolster their alignment against the U.S. This was evident from the joint statements released on Wednesday. The Chinese readout accused the U.S. of undermining international security and expressed “serious concern” about the American-led Aukus security partnership and NATO’s growing ties in Asia. As Rachel Cheung reported for VICE, the priority of the trip was not to end Russia’s war in Ukraine, but to criticize the U.S. and its allies

[Xi and Putin] also took it a step further by taking aim at Washington. “It’s very explicit for the first time in terms of identifying the United States as a major threat for both China and Russia,” Alexander Korolev, a senior lecturer on international relations at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, told VICE World News. Instead of making shaded reference with terms such as “certain countries with hegemonic ambitions,” the two countries are unequivocal in naming the U.S. and its allies as source of concern.

[…] “The main goal is to put up a show for the Americans to show unity. And they’ve succeeded in that,” [said Una Aleksandra Berzina-Cerenkova, head of the Asia program at the Latvian Institute of International Affairs]. [Source]

As for discussion of the war, which both leaders referred to instead as a “crisis” or “issue,” little was said and little progress was made. The word “Ukraine” featured only once near the end of the joint statement, after language urging that the U.N. Charter and international law must be respected. Putin welcomed China’s position paper outlining its principles regarding the war. He stated: “We believe that many of the provisions of the peace plan put forward by China are consonant with Russian approaches and can be taken as the basis for a peaceful settlement when they are ready for that in the West and in Kyiv. However,” he added, “so far we see no such readiness from their side.” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Monday that the ceasefire proposed in China’s position paper, which did not call for the withdrawal of Russian forces from Ukraine, “would effectively be supporting the ratification of Russian conquest.”

The optics of Xi’s visit challenge China’s claim of neutrality. His trip to Moscow occurred at the same time as Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s trip to Bucha, highlighting starkly different paths on Ukraine. It also occurred just days after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Putin over alleged war crimes involving the kidnapping of Ukrainian children. Undeterred, Xi praised Putin’s “strong leadership,” and the two called each other “dear friends.” Putin rolled out the red carpet and a set of elaborate meals to toast their ten years of friendship, and said that their bilateral cooperation “has truly unlimited possibilities and prospects.” China has leaned into its partnership with Russia, noted Evan Feigenbaum of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in a recent commentary. At The Diplomat, Shannon Tiezzi described how the two countries have recommitted to a close partnership in the shadow of the Ukraine war:

Xi told Putin during their talks that China and Russia “should support each other on issues concerning each other’s core interests.” And he also specifically told reporters that “since last year” – meaning, since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – “the all-round practical cooperation between China and Russia has yielded fruitful outcomes, and continued to manifest its strengths of solid fundamentals, high complementarity and strong resilience.”

[…] Xi himself declared openly that “consolidating and developing China-Russia relations well is China’s strategic decision, based on its basic interests and the larger trends of global development.” Xi also made clear that Russia holds “leading position” in China’s diplomacy, adding that the general direction of China strengthening strategic cooperation with Russia is “unswerving.”

Anyone seriously considering China playing a role as peacemaker in Ukraine needs to wrestle with its constant and overt declarations of long-term partnership with Russia, no matter what. [Source]

Chinese and Russian state media provided further evidence of a closer relationship between both countries amid the Ukraine war. One of the outcomes of the visit included a commitment to strengthen their media cooperation. Moreover, in an article published on Monday in the Russian Gazette and on the RIA Novosti news agency website, Xi declared that “our friendship is growing steadily and must be cherished.” China Media Project also noted that on Monday the People’s Daily carried an article by Putin that praised Xi’s contribution to the continued growth of their friendship:

Interestingly — symbolically? — the first mention of Zelensky in the People’s Daily since October 2022 was hemmed in on all sides by articles extolling China’s deep friendship and partnership with Russia, including a piece penned by Vladimir Putin himself, “Russia and China: A Partnership for the Future.”

“I am convinced that the friendship and partnership between Russia and China, based on the strategic choices of our two peoples, will continue to grow strong and make Russia and China happy and prosperous,” Putin said in closing his article, which spoke of a no-bounds military and political alliance exceeding that of the Cold War.

“Without a doubt, the Chinese President’s visit will contribute to this,” he wrote. [Source]

Xi’s willingness to deepen ties with Putin is part of his long-term bet on the benefits of a closer relationship with Russia, one that observers view as increasingly one-sided. Fulbright scholar Philipp Ivanov wrote in Foreign Policy that “China is clearly the top dog in the relationship,” with Russia relegated to the role of “little brother,” but not quite a vassal state. Li Xin, director of the Institute of European and Asian Studies at the Shanghai University of Political Science and Law, told AP that “Russia may worry about increasing reliance upon China, but it has no other good options.” However, Russia’s cultural and historical hold over China complicates the relationship: “Although China’s national strength is now ten times that of Russia, the biggest challenge is that many Chinese people are still subservient to Russia ideologically,” wrote Feng Yujun, a prominent Russia scholar at Shanghai’s Fudan University. That said, as Max Seddon and Joe Leahy reported in The Financial Times, even the Kremlin may view Russia as a junior partner and resource colony:

“The sanctions have exacerbated the already asymmetrical relationship between Russia and China,” said Maria Shagina, a senior research fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “It’s hard to hide the fact that Russia is now a junior partner.”

Moscow sees its economic reliance on China as crucial to its prospects of winning the war, a person close to the Kremlin said. While China’s help in weathering the effects of US sanctions is irreplaceable, Russia’s wealth of natural resources will secure Beijing’s continued support, the person added.

[…] “The logic of events dictates that we fully become a Chinese resource colony,” the person said. “Our servers will be from Huawei. We will be China’s major suppliers of everything. They will get gas from Power of Siberia. By the end of 2023 the yuan [renminbi] will be our main trade currency.” [Source]

At The Washington Post, Lily Kuo described how some Chinese netizens evaded online censorship of Xi’s visit to criticize China’s embrace of Russia and sidelining of Ukraine:

Coverage has also been carefully curated to leave little room for discussion or criticism of the visit. Posts only from state media and verified accounts appeared to be promoted on social media platforms, while the only visible discussions were hashtags such as “Russia and China connected by mountains and rivers” — a reference to China and Russia’s long border and Xi’s remarks upon arriving in Moscow on Monday.

Still, there were a few lone users voicing their opposition online. On Weibo, one user wrote, “Up to now, China has not issued a single condemnation of Russian aggression.” Another wrote, referring to China’s historical grievances with Japan during the Second World War, “How can China not see how Ukraine feels?”

“Anyone with any sense can see that what Russia has done is a naked act of aggression,” another wrote. [Source]

“With Mr. Xi’s visit [to Russia], China has made it clear to the world which side it has chosen,” wrote Li Yuan in The New York Times, referencing the growing divide between the U.S. and China. She quoted Shanghai-based political scholar Hu Wei, who said, “The fault line between the two camps is becoming increasingly sharper.” At The Wall Street Journal, Jonathan Cheng described how Xi’s visit to Moscow fits into a larger pattern of Beijing’s ambitions to challenge the U.S.-led international order:

The moves might not result in lasting diplomatic breakthroughs, and China’s perceived inclination toward Russia on the Ukraine war, highlighted again this week in Moscow, has undercut Mr. Xi’s credibility as a neutral arbiter among Kyiv’s backers. Early Wednesday, as Mr. Xi was preparing to depart Moscow, Russia launched a new wave of missiles and armed drones into Ukraine, killing four people in a school dormitory in the Kyiv region.

But China’s willingness to wade into these conflicts in such a strident way marks a new phase in the country’s vision for itself and its role in the world. It sends a message that China and its friends are no longer obliged to conform to a U.S.-led global order, and that Beijing poses a challenge to Washington as it tries to shape a world it sees as divided between democracies and autocracies.

[…] On Tuesday, Mr. Xi told Mr. Putin that the world was going through changes unseen in a century, using a favored formulation of the Chinese leader to reference this dark period in the country’s past—and to point ahead to the brighter future he hopes to bring. [Source]

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