PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN of Russia is the first world leader that President Xi Jinping has met in person since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.
That in itself speaks to the growing closeness of the relationship between the two countries. The meeting of their leaders in Beijing ahead of the opening of the Winter Olympics on February 4 — their 38th since Xi became China’s leader in 2012-13 — only served to underline that.
A joint statement touched on common talking points:
- a call on the West to abandon ‘the ideologised approaches of the cold war’ and on Nato to rule out expansion in eastern Europe;
- a denouncement of security blocs in the Asia-Pacific region, notably the trilateral security pact between the United States, United Kingdom and Australia (Aukus); and
- a pledge to step up cooperation to thwart colour revolutions and external interference and deepen their ‘back-to-back’ strategic coordination.
Putin voiced his support for the reunification of Taiwan, but there was no specific mention of Ukraine in the statement. There will inevitably be comparisons drawn between the two, although these only go so far. Xi will be wary, too, of pushing the parallels. He wants neither to drive Europe deeper into Washington’s camp nor to upset China’s economic interests in Ukraine, a country with which Beijing still has diplomatic relations.
War would impose costs on Beijing. Its cooperation with Moscow would not extend to committing PLA forces, although a small humanitarian mission would be possible.
However, an invasion of Ukraine would likely bring severe US sanctions against Russia. Beijing would then be pressed to offer economic support such as providing alternative payment systems, loans for Russian banks and firms, more purchases of Russian oil or even outright sanctions-busting. It would prefer not to get drawn in to any of that except on its own terms and timetable.
China and Russia stand close but not yet fully shoulder to shoulder. Xi sees trade and investment as the backbone of the relationship even if security and geopolitical cooperation remains important. He told Putin during their meeting that China intends to increase the annual level of bilateral trade to $250 billion. It is around $140 billion a year now. China is happy to buy more Russian gas.
In that context, China has advanced a nuanced narrative, aimed at non-Western countries, of the Ukraine crisis as yet another example of Washington and Western democracy’s ‘failure’ and the West’s bullying and refusal to respect the sovereign right of other countries.
In the same vein, Xi and Putin also portrayed their countries as the defenders of multilateralism and democracy and upholders of international equity and justice. That is undoubtedly overegging the pudding but fits a long-term strategy — and common interest — to undermine the West’s soft power.