THE EMPEROR DOES not usually travel to visit the vassal.
However, President Xi Jinping will go to Moscow to meet his Russian counterpart and friend Vladimir Putin on Monday and Tuesday.
It will be his first visit to Russia since Putin’s invasion of Ukraine shortly after the two leaders declared their partnership without limits when they met during the Beijing Winter Olympics in February 2022.
Yet the war has made it transparent that there are limits to the relationship, and they are becoming complex.
The visit will be widely seen as a show of support by Xi for Putin, a message that China stands by its friends aimed at the Global South as much as at the West.
However, the visit also promotes hopes that Xi can develop an exit strategy with Putin to end the fighting, although, to this Bystander, those hopes are not well-founded.
China has put forward a 12-point peace plan, largely dismissed in the West as providing a ceasefire during which Moscow can regroup and rearm. The proposal does not require Russian troops to leave occupied territory. It also requires the West to withdraw, leading Moscow and Kyiv to negotiate an end to the conflict, presumably mediated by Beijing.
Xi is expected to talk to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky after he has met Putin. That may be the start of some shuttle diplomacy, but how much scope Xi has to pursue it is uncertain.
His biggest constraint is that any end to the war in Ukraine acceptable to the West will also require a new security architecture in Europe. While it would suit Xi to shape that to China’s advantage, it would be a monumental task that appears unachievable given the deteriorating state of China-US relations.
Putin’s surprise visit to the occupied Ukrainian port of Mariupol on Saturday suggests the Russian leader has no intention of backing down. The International Criminal Court issuing a warrant for his arrest gives him further incentive not to do so.
At this point, there is little basis for a negotiated end to the war. A protracted conflict seems inevitable, although the length of the kinetic phase of the war may be clearer once the spring surges are done. Yet they do not promise a decisive breakthrough for either side.
Meanwhile, the geopolitical sakes for Xi remain high. For as long as Washington cannot let Moscow win the war, China cannot afford for Moscow to lose it. That may be the one thing the imperial visit underlines.
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