With His Trip To Moscow, Xi Has Sent A Clear Message To The World
China has adopted a stance of pro-Putin neutrality since the start of Russia's invasion. But this is not an alliance of equals. China has the upper-hand and sees the opportunity to present itself as an alternative world leader.
PARIS — While Russia is mired in Ukraine, and Vladimir Putin has become the target of an international arrest warrant, China appeared as a lifeline.
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Xi Jinping’s presence in Moscow from Monday to Wednesday was a bit like the "quiet force" visiting a friend in trouble. They offer him "face," as the Chinese expression for showing respect goes, referring to him as "dear friend"...
But reality sets in very quickly: between the couple, Beijing has the upper hand — and Moscow has no choice.
Since the invasion of Ukraine, China has observed what one diplomat astutely calls a "pro-Putin neutrality", a subtle balance that suits Beijing more than Moscow. Putin could have hoped for more active support, especially in the delivery of arms, technological products, or ways to circumvent Western sanctions. But China is helping Russia sparingly, while making sure to not incur sanctions in turn.
An economic play
Xi Jinping's visit, which ended Wednesday, has confirmed two fundamental elements: the first is that Beijing will not let go of Putin, despite the hopes of some Westerners. Xi Jinping even predicted that Putin would be re-elected next year, and invited him to come to China.
The second element is on the economic front, with the negotiation, apparently well advanced, of the construction of a second gas pipeline between Russia and China, via Mongolia. It will allow the gas that has been boycotted by Europe to be rerouted to China. This is vital for the Russian economy, as China confirms it will use Russia as an energy reservoir on its doorstep.
Chinese President Xi Jinping's plane at Vnukovo-2 airport in Moscow.
An alternative world leader
There remains a strong complicity between the two countries, a partnership that’s constantly reinforced, yet still not a formal alliance, which China has rejected. Beijing and Moscow share an anti-Western vision of the world, but not to the point of tying their fate in confrontation with the Western bloc.
Ukraine is the least of Xi's priorities.
Xi Jinping sees far beyond the Ukrainian conflict, which is the least of his priorities. He is aiming for the leadership of the non-Western world, those countries of the Global South that did not want to align themselves with Washington in Ukraine, and want to emancipate themselves from the alliances of the past.
Last week, China surprised the world by organizing in Beijing the resumption of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran. This week, Xi Jinping is developing a soothing, non-interference speech in Moscow, to contrast with America, which he blames for the war in Ukraine.
This rhetoric goes far beyond Ukraine. Moreover, Beijing has taken note of the visit of Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida to Kyiv, which coincided with Xi's visit to Moscow: Asian rivalries can be found in this part of Europe at war.
If there is a lesson to be learned from Xi Jinping's trip to Moscow, it is that far from keeping a low profile in the face of Washington, China is presenting itself as an alternative world leader.