The façade of unity between Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin was lifted in Uzbekistan last week. But where exactly does the Chinese head of state stand on the Russian invasion of Ukraine? Beijing is still establishing its place in the world, and it remains in contradiction to the West
Xi Jinping is not out of practice. The Chinese President's public demeanor on his first foreign trip since January 2020 was as confident as ever. When meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, he promptly removed his mask and stood inches away from the Russian president, smiling affably.
What looked routine to the outside world was a diplomatic tightrope walk that the Chinese leader felt compelled to perform. It was the first face-to-face meeting between the two leaders since February, when they proclaimed a "friendship without borders" at the Winter Olympics in Beijing. Shortly thereafter, Putin launched his campaign against Ukraine – and the world wondered whether Putin had used his Olympic visit to obtain Xi's approval for his invasion.
One thing is certain: Putin's war — since Day One — has not gone according to plan; and if Xi had ever thought the Kremlin ruler's move might have been a good idea, skepticism has grown steadily over the months since.
That was more evident than ever at the Samarkand meeting when, surprising many, Xi expressed doubts about the war for the first time. Yes, China's president is distancing himself. He's doing so because he has big plans of his own – and Putin's war threatens to jeopardize them.
A subtle humiliation
Xi did Putin a favor simply by holding the bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the SCO summit. The alliance of states was founded in 2001 by China and Russia as a counterweight to the Western world. India and Pakistan are now also members, with Iran soon to follow. For Putin, it served as a stage to signal to the domestic audience that he is by no means isolated internationally.
In gratitude, he praised the "balanced position of our Chinese friends" on the war. Until then, Beijing had never condemned the Russian invasion and had criticized Western sanctions and arms deliveries. But then – and this role reversal seemed like a subtle humiliation – it was Putin himself who acknowledged that Xi Jinping had doubts about Russia's war. "We understand your questions and concerns about this," Putin said. "And, of course, are ready to present our position on this issue in detail in the course of today's meeting, although we have also talked about it before."
It originally suited Xi: the U.S. was again focused on Europe.
It was the first crack in a public harmony between the two dictatorships which had been carefully maintained for more than half a year. "It suggests that behind the scenes, China has for the first time expressed concerns, perhaps even criticism, of Russia's invasion," says Helena Legarda of the Mercator Institute, Germany's leading China think tank. "But Xi also can't drop Putin because he needs him in the alliance against the U.S. and what is perceived as a Western-dominated world."
Aversion to Washington
Relations with the West have finally cooled down for a bit after Xi had tried with all his might in early August to prevent U.S. leader Nancy Pelosi from traveling to Taiwan. If China wants to push through its expansionist goals in the region, it needs allies. For Xi, Putin is the ideal candidate. Both share an aversion to U.S. dominance.
The Ukraine war originally suited Beijing because the West's security policy attention suddenly was focused back on Europe. On the continent, people feared that Russia might even attack NATO countries after Ukraine. The U.S. had to return to NATO's original purpose, defending the alliance's territory in Europe, and seemed distracted by events in Asia.
In the wake of Russia's severe setbacks in Ukraine, there are signs that China's hopes that the West would be overwhelmed were premature. If Russia does indeed suffer defeat and is permanently weakened, the United States could turn all the more strongly to China. Without a security challenge from Russia, the U.S. could focus entirely on the Indo-Pacific, writes military strategist Phillips O'Brien of Scotland's St. Andrews University.
So, it is in Xi's interest for Russia to regain the upper hand in the Ukraine war – and tie up the West's forces. But China needs to be careful. It could, as the West did to Ukraine, supply its weapons to Russia. Putin had already made such a request to Xi in the spring to no avail, according to Politico, and there was no movement on this in Samarkand either.
China is helping Moscow economically, not militarily. For example, China is increasingly importing Russian raw materials, but on its terms. On Thursday, Beijing agreed to take 50 billion cubic meters of gas that Russia once sold to Europe.
Russia's President Vladimir Putin and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping during the SCO summit in Samarkand
A responsible player
If it provides too much support, though, China runs the risk of also being hit by Western sanctions as an accomplice of the Kremlin, says China expert Legarda. "And it can't afford that, because economically the West is extremely important for China." That's why Beijing hasn't helped Russia evade sanctions so far. Chinese banks withdrew from financing Russian commodity exports, and Chinese tech companies said goodbye to the Russian market.
With an export share of 2.1%, the Russian market is negligible for China. Germany's share is already larger at 3.5%, not to mention the 18% accounted for by the United States. But the distance to Putin built up in Uzbekistan has another important reason.
The country "likes to present itself as a responsible global power that does not interfere in the affairs of other states," Legarda says. "If it fully supported Russia in its invasion, that would contradict its own narrative." That would offend many countries China is courting in its quest for world power status.
Xi must avoid turbulence at home.
The example of Kazakhstan exemplifies this: on his way to Samarkand, Xi visited Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. Xi assured the neighboring country of his full support in security matters. Kazakhstan, which has refused to follow Putin in the Ukraine war, is "moving away from Russia and toward China. Too much support for Putin by Xi would scare the country," Legarda says.
New Silk Road revisited
That's a risk Beijing wants to avoid because Kazakhstan is a valuable supplier of energy and raw materials and the first key stop on the New Silk Road, Beijing's central project for expanding its geopolitical power. In Samarkand, Xi called his country a great power that gives the "world stability and positive energy." Proximity to Putin no longer fits this description.
Xi must also avoid new turbulence at home. He is already under pressure, and his radical zero-COVID policy is highly controversial. Just recently, Chengdu, one of the country's largest cities, was forced into lockdown. Protests are stirring on the Internet, and the economic situation is grim. In the second quarter of 2022, China's economy grew by only 0.4% – meager for a country in which the Communist Party builds its power on the promise of a better future.
In about a month, Xi plans to take a historic step: against tradition, he will stand for a third term – and thus become the most powerful president since Mao Zedong. Xi and Putin are thus at least in agreement in their efforts to make their own rule last forever. On the path to omnipotence, that leaves no room for defeat .
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