Russian President Vladimir Putin rolled out the red carpet for friend, fellow traveller and Ukraine conflict backer, China’s President Xi Jinping in Moscow. What the meeting means for the war in Ukraine and its implications for the changing world order is the subject for current speculation.
Nothing much is really known about what transpired between the two leaders. The analyses are based on their past statements, their body gestures and projection of theories based on the West’s fears of the two friends destabilising Europe.
Both leaders, under Xi’s influence, are building the blocks for a united stand against the only enemy, not Ukraine but the United States. Xi’s parting statement as he shook hands with Putin sums is up: “Together, we should push forward these changes that have not happened for 100 years.”
If observers expected the meeting to see a breakthrough in the conflict, they were disappointed. The meeting was never meant to discuss Ukraine other than witness China fully back Russia’s commitment to the war. They were interested in what they think the war will do to Europe.
The way the Russians are pounding Ukrainian cities and towns with the help also of Wagner mercenaries, destroying monuments and cultural icons without mercy, shows they are intent on breaking the will of the Ukrainians by force and show scant respect for its territorial integrity and bring Volodymyr Zelenskyy to his knees.
By extension, the leaders expect the conflict to disrupt the basic characteristics of Nato while challenging the West’s unity. China and Russia are, expectedly, using the conflict as the pretext, probably the means to, influence the political and economic rules in the coming years.
China is following the US footsteps closely insofar as projecting its dominance as the replacement power wherever the US has vacated space. It started conversations with Taliban even as the Americans were exiting Afghanistan. They took advantage of the American disquiet over Iran and Xi Jinping personally took interest in forging an agreement between the Iranians and Saudi Arabia, more to improve China’s image than broker peace between the two countries. Xi is confident enough to think that he has engineered space for China in the Middle East already. His backing of Russia over Ukraine is his oblique entry into European politics.
This is how the Chinese media interpreted the Moscow meeting: “Thanks to joint efforts, China and Russia have enjoyed deepening political mutual trust, convergence of interests, and understanding between the peoples, Xi said, adding that their cooperation in such areas as the economy and trade, investment, energy, people-to-people and cultural exchanges and at the subnational levels has made continued progress. There are a growing number of areas and an even stronger consensus for cooperation.”
The media report saw the meeting as part of a pre-determined Chinese policy to expand its influence beyond Asia through its ties with Russia: “China is in the first year of fully implementing the guiding principles set forth by the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, and it will foster a new development paradigm at a faster pace, promote high-quality development, and advance Chinese modernization in all respects, he said.”
At one level, therefore, the conflict between China and the West can be seen as one between different values, cultures, systems and rules. But where Xi fails to make this proposition convincing is in the fact that the Western model, even if riddled with weaknesses, is based on the concept of human rights, democracy, the rule of law and international rules on trade and sovereignty. That is where the Chinese, or the Sino-Russian model, fails completely, built as they are on undemocratic and authoritarian fiats.
The question before the world is what it means for Ukraine to lose the war, if that happens. The loss for Ukraine is a loss for the West and western principles of governance. Russia will use the opportunity to re-assert itself in eastern Europe, backed by China. It is too far-fetched at this moment to speculate that the China would force a division of Europe between two influencing points – the centrist-liberal and democratic part of Europe backing the United States, and the right-wing, autocratic governments backing Russia-China. Such a Cold War scenario is disappointing to say the least.
Even otherwise, the loss of Ukraine will bind China and Russia as a force not only in Europe but also in Asia. That has ramifications of its own in the Indo-Pacific where the Americans are trying to entrench themselves with the help of their maritime might.
Foreign Policy explains the personalities of Xi and Putin and what they mean. “Xi and Putin, who have met more than 40 times, seem to sympathize as fellow autocrats; they speak the mutual language of power. (The Russian translator at their meeting this week, however, embellished Xi’s language to make it sound more fulsome toward Putin.) Although Chinese state media doesn’t often offer direct backing for Russia’s territorial claims in Ukraine, it constantly mentions how the war is the fault of NATO and the United States. To some degree, this week’s meeting pushed back on U.S. warnings to China not to back Russia in the war.”
The sceptics, however, are not too worried by this friendship on display. They say China also wants to dominate Russia which will not be something Moscow would like. Today Russia is isolated and is grabbing at any straw. China is a big straw. It needs China’s trade. On the other hand, China would be apprehensive about the outcome of the Ukraine conflict and its economic implications. If Russia fails to cut its losses in the end, China would not want to be the crutch – it would be at China’s expense, adding to its financial burden. Yet another signal that all is not smooth between the two is the fact that the Moscow meeting did not mention Power of Siberia 2—Russia’s plan to deliver gas to China via Mongolia. Russia is finding it difficult to sell its gas because of the sanctions and China is not willing to do Moscow any favours over energy prices.
As Foreign Policy reports, “Beijing’s broader pitch, endorsed by Moscow, is that it can be a peacemaker between Ukraine and Russia, but it’s hard to see how Ukrainians would see China as acting in good faith given the optics of Xi’s embrace of Putin”. The question, in the short-term, therefore, is whether China will shed its inhibition and openly supply arms to Russia.