You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

Xi’s Visit to Russia Was About China’s Interests, not Ukraine

World Politics Review logo: MainLogo World Politics Review 3/22/2023 Yena Lee
Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin make a joint appearance following their talks at the Kremlin, in Moscow, Russia, March 21, 2023 (Sputnik photo by Mikhail Tereshchenko via AP). © Yena Lee Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin make a joint appearance following their talks at the Kremlin, in Moscow, Russia, March 21, 2023 (Sputnik photo by Mikhail Tereshchenko via AP).

BEIJING—President Xi Jinping was in Moscow this week for a three-day state visit at the invitation of Russian President Vladimir Putin, a man he often refers to as his “best friend.” After a warm welcome on the tarmac, Russian state TV cameras captured the two leaders flattering each other at the Kremlin, with Xi predicting Putin’s reelection next year.

The visit marks Xi’s first international trip since locking down his unprecedented third term as Chinese president, and his first to Russia since the invasion of Ukraine. It also comes just weeks after Beijing released a 12-point position paper on a political settlement to what it calls the “Ukraine Crisis.”

Ahead of his trip, Xi also signed an op-ed in the form of an open letter in Russian state media that described the two countries’ relationship as one of “friendship, cooperation and peace.” The letter called for increased economic and people-to-people exchanges between China and Russia, but also included two paragraphs on the war. Xi underlined the importance of respecting the “legitimate security concerns of all countries,” while repeating other broad statements Beijing has made before.

Since Russia’s all-out invasion of Ukraine last year, China’s public position on the war has been vague and full of statements that are difficult to contradict, such as “conflict and war benefit no one” and “the safety of civilians must be effectively protected.” The 12-point document similarly offered no condemnation of Russia’s aggression, which is why the U.S. and its allies were quick to dismiss it. In contrast, Moscow stated it has “carefully” read the plan and is “open to the negotiating process.”

Subscribe now to receive this newsletter by email every week. If you’re already a subscriber, adjust your newsletter settings to receive it directly in your email inbox.

The West’s wariness comes in part from Beijing’s obvious proximity to Moscow. Despite its claims of neutrality, China has ostentatiously maintained its support to Russia in the form of energy purchases and diplomatic protection at the United Nations. There have been reports that China supplies Russia with nonlethal equipment, and the U.S. has warned China not to go a step further by supplying weapons. Since the outbreak of the war, bilateral trade has increased by 36 percent. And the two states have continued their joint military exercises in places like the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea.

This is to say nothing of how the two leaders have publicly showcased their personal friendship over the years. Xi once gifted Putin a birthday cake on the sidelines of an international summit. A few years later, Putin surprised Xi with ice cream and champagne on the latter’s 66th birthday. The two have now met 40 times.

For all these reasons, China would not be an objective mediator when it comes to the war in Ukraine. However, that does not mean it can’t conceivably play a role in any eventual negotiations.   

Kyiv, though skeptical, has been more receptive of China’s 12-point plan than the U.S., saying it was open to parts of it. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said he wanted to discuss it with Xi. Now there are reports that a call between the two will take place this week. 

In a best-case scenario, Beijing might use its leverage over Moscow to push for peace. After all, Putin needs Xi more than Xi needs Putin. Since the war began, Russia has become increasingly isolated both politically and economically, and China has consistently come to its rescue. In the process, it has made Russia the junior, dependent partner in their relationship.

Moreover, Beijing does not support Moscow out of deep, historical ties or shared values. To the contrary, the surface-level camaraderie between the two leaders obscures the historical rivalry between the two countries. Theirs is a relationship of convenience based on sharing a common enemy—the United States.

The invasion of Ukraine has shown that there are in fact limits to China and Russia’s “no-limits friendship,” as they described their relationship just weeks before the Russian invasion. Beijing has found itself pushed into a diplomatic corner, with potential political and economic consequences no matter what path it chooses to take. Standing with Moscow to advance their mutual long-term goal of weakening the West will eventually be incompatible with deepening economic ties with Europe, a priority for China as it emerges from its “zero COVID” policy.

Some in Europe hope that the war’s impact on China’s standing could eventually outweigh the benefits of Xi’s partnership with Putin. Most are warier, skeptical that this unequal friendship will translate into peace for Ukraine. In this view, China might use its leverage, but not in the pursuit of peace. Instead, China’s own geopolitical and economic interests will be Beijing’s priority.

In any case, expectations that China is going to help broker a breakthrough in the near term are low. Even if peace in Ukraine suddenly became Xi’s main objective, it is no easy task. Xi’s state visit to Moscow has resulted in new economic cooperation deals and a pledge to finish the Siberia 2 gas pipline, but nothing new on Ukraine.

Beijing may have helped midwife a surprise normalization deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia earlier this month, but the war in Ukraine requires a different level of diplomacy. Tehran and Riyadh had already shown a mutual willingness to defuse tensions, they had been in talks for years, with help from regional mediators like Iraq and Oman. China stepped in to smooth out the final obstacles to a deal. In contrast, Russia and Ukraine are nowhere near talking about, let alone agreeing on, a resolution to the current war. Both sides are still convinced they can gain a decisive upper hand before negotiating terms, and they are now gearing up for a spring offensive, not peace talks.

Still, China does not have much to lose by positioning itself as a potential mediator. Following up Xi’s state visit to Moscow with a phone call to Kyiv would allow Beijing to claim neutrality and tout its status as a major world power. If China makes any meaningful contribution to future peace talks this week, it would be a huge diplomatic win. If it does not, state media will either pretend it did anyway, or argue that at least it tried.

Again, that is not to say there’s no place for Beijing in peace talks. And there might be a time when peace in Ukraine aligns with Beijing’s urgent interests. But for now, the concrete outcome of Xi’s visit is stronger economic ties between China and a sanctioned Russia and the legitimization of a formally accused war criminal.  

In Other News

Former Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou will travel to China March 27 on a visit that will last until April 7. The trip will be historic: the first by a former or current Taiwanese leader to the mainland since the end of the civil war.

Ma is a senior member of the opposition KMT party, which officially opposes unification but favors closer ties with Beijing. The KMT is presenting the trip as an opportunity to ease cross-strait tensions, which have spiked in recent years. Ma’s office says he is open to talks with senior PRC leaders, but for now the only meetings on his agenda are with Taiwanese students studying in China.

The landmark trip coincides with President Tsai Ing-wen’s visit to the U.S. and comes ahead of the January 2024 election, highlighting the Taiwanese political parties’ varying approaches to the relationship with Beijing.

Yena Lee is a Beijing-based Korean broadcast journalist with a background in Asia studies. She has covered national and international news ranging from protests in Paris to the G-20 and APEC summits.

The post Xi’s Visit to Russia Was About China’s Interests, not Ukraine appeared first on World Politics Review.


World Politics Review

World Politics Review: MainLogo
World Politics Review
image beaconimage beaconimage beacon