What to expect from China-Russia talks?
Chinese President Xi Jinping is making his first trip to Russia since the country invaded Ukraine last year and will hold talks with President Vladimir Putin.
Our Russia editor Steve Rosenberg and China correspondent Stephen McDonell reflect on what each side is trying to gain from the talks and what we know about relations between the two countries.
Putin seeks help from a friend
Imagine you are Vladimir Putin.
They started a war that didn’t go according to plan; They’re up to their eyeballs in sanctions; and now the International Criminal Court has issued a war crimes warrant with your name on it.
In times like these you need a friend.
Enter Xi Jinping.
President Xi once called President Putin his “best friend.” The two have much in common: they are both authoritarian leaders and both share the idea of a “multipolar world” without US domination.
In Moscow, they are to sign an agreement to “deepen the comprehensive partnership” between their two countries.
The Chinese president’s state visit is a clear sign of support for Russia – and its president – at a time when the Kremlin is under intense international pressure.
And Russia’s relationship with China is fundamental to withstanding it.
“Putin is building his own bloc. He no longer trusts the West – and will never do so again,” believes journalist Dmitri Muratov, a former Nobel Peace Prize winner.
“So Putin is looking for allies and trying to make Russia part of a common fortress with China, as well as with India, some parts of Latin America and Africa. Putin is building his anti-Western world.”
In this “anti-Western world” Moscow is heavily dependent on Beijing – more than ever as the war in Ukraine rages on.
“War has become the organizing principle of Russian domestic, foreign and economic policy. There is an obsession with destroying Ukraine,” concludes Alexander Gabuev, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“You need guns, money and an economic lifeline for that. At a minimum, China provides Russia with weapons components and civilian technology that can be used for military purposes. It definitely delivers money.”
To counter Western sanctions and prop up the Russian economy, Russia has boosted trade with China, particularly in the energy sector. Expect oil, gas and energy pipelines to be on the agenda of Putin-Xi talks.
But imagine again that you are Putin. A year ago, you and Xi declared that your partnership has “no boundaries.” If that is indeed the case, could you expect China to help you now in Ukraine, supplying lethal aid to Russia and enabling a military victory for Moscow? The US claims that China is considering doing just that. Beijing denies this.
As they say in Russia, “there’s no harm in making a wish” – but that doesn’t mean it will happen. If the last year has shown anything, it is that the “no limits partnership” has limits. So far, Beijing has apparently been reluctant to provide direct military aid to Moscow for fear of triggering secondary sanctions against Chinese companies in the West. As for Beijing: sorry, Russia… China first.
This very point was made very bluntly on a recent talk show on Russian state television.
“Before President Xi’s visit to Moscow, some experts here were overwrought, even elated,” noted military expert Mikhail Khodarenok.
“But China can only have one ally: China itself. China can only have one set of interests: pro-Chinese. Chinese foreign policy is entirely devoid of altruism.”
Xi’s signals to Putin can only go in three directions
Officially, Xi Jinping’s visit to Russia is intended to promote bilateral ties between two neighbors, and certainly these governments say they are getting closer.
There are agreements to be signed, meals to be taken and photo ops to be staged.
All governments have visits like this, so why all the attention on this one?
Well, for one, this is the leader of one of the world’s two major superpowers visiting an ally – who happens to be the person who launched a bloody invasion of another country in Europe – in 2023.
Many analysts have pondered what China might do if it looks like Russia faces a clear, humiliating defeat on the battlefield.
The Chinese government says it is neutral. Would it just step back and let that happen, or start pumping in guns to give the Russian army a better advantage?
After Xi arrives in Moscow, he and his Russian counterpart may talk about other things, but all attention will be on the Ukraine crisis.
His signals to Vladimir Putin can only go in three directions:
1. It’s time to consider a face-saving compromise retreat
2. Green light to continue or go in even harder
3. Either way, nothing from China’s leaders
China is coming back from brokering a deal that saw Iran and Saudi Arabia resume diplomatic ties. It is becoming more and more willing to get involved in affairs far beyond its borders. This seems to make option three unlikely.
On option one, if Beijing could once again claim the mantle of global peacemaker after the Iran-Saudi deal, that would be a pretty nice feather in Xi’s cap.
The main problem with this option is the extent to which it would also benefit China.
The dirtiest of options is number two, but there is a reading in which Russia’s war with Ukraine plays into Beijing’s geopolitical strategy. The Kremlin is taking on the West, gobbling up NATO resources, and the longer the war drags on, the more it tests the Western public’s appetite for more conflict should the People’s Liberation Army attempt to take Taiwan by force.
The calculus from Beijing could be: The longer the war lasts, the fewer people want to get involved in another one.
The Chinese government’s claim to neutrality also does not fit with the state-controlled reporting here. The evening TV bulletins align themselves with the Kremlin and devote much of their reporting to blaming the “West” for the “conflict”. She does not speak of a “war” and would never think of an “invasion” of Ukraine.
Publicly, China says that the sovereignty of all nations should be respected (e.g. that of Ukraine), but also the “legitimate security concerns” of other countries (e.g. Russia).
But it is not in Kiev that Xi Jinping is visiting. It’s Moscow.
So when Xi leaves Moscow in a few days, Putin will either be concerned about faltering Chinese support or be buoyed by the support of one of the two most powerful people in the world.
The smart money seems to be on the latter.