The Chinese President Xi Jinping is in Moscow for a three-day visit, his first since assuming his third term as President earlier this month. The visit comes shortly after Washington warned that Xi might begin supplying weapons for the Russian war effort.
The visit concluded with two statements today, one a long one on the deepening strategic cooperation in the “new era” and the other a short one on the pre-2030 development priorities.
Analysts say a quick read of the somewhat long first statement suggests that the visit signals an intensification and broadening of the relationship.
The statement does not reflect any discernible change in China’s position in Ukraine. While it talks about upholding international law and the principles of the UN Charter, it has little to say about the brutal violation of Ukrainian sovereignty. Also, while it speaks of peace talks and “responsible dialogue”, there is no reference to a Russian withdrawal from occupied Ukrainian territory.
Chinese President Xi Jinping's Moscow visit, the first after this third-terms, comes shortly after Washington warned Xi might begin supplying weapons for the Russian war effort.
While the statement following Xi's visit talks about upholding international law and the principles of the UN Charter, it has little to say about the brutal violation of Ukrainian sovereignty.
Chinese foreign minister Qin Gang implied that the Chinese discourse on the Ukraine war clearly blames the United States for the crisis.
The Ukraine war has shifted the dynamics of the relationship in China’s favour with the Russians seeking military assistance from China on behalf of discounted oil and partnership.
Xi’s Focus on Furthering Russia Ties
Both Xi and Putin published articles in the leading media of their respective countries prior to the visit. Xi wrote in the Russian Gazette and RIA Novosti that the Chinese definition of ties was that the two countries are committed to “no alliance, no confrontation and not targeting any third party in developing our ties.”
On the other hand, writing in People’s Daily, Putin repeated the “no limits” formulation that was arrived at by the two countries on the eve of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Putin said that the Russia-China ties would “surpass Cold War era military-political alliances in their quality, with no one to constantly order and no one to constantly obey, without limitations or taboos.“
The “no limits and no forbidden zones” is not surprisingly absent in Xi’s article. It may be recalled that the 4 February 2022 formulation was “friendship between the two states has no limits, there are no ‘forbidden’ areas of cooperation.”
Earlier this month, China’s new Foreign Minister Qin Gang had reiterated the formulation as part of the Chinese policy.
In their articles, both Putin and Xi have pushed against the US-led global order and supported the centrality of the United Nations, rejected the notion of sanctions, though Xi has laid greater emphasis on his new Global Security Initiative (GSI) and Putin has underscored Russian support for the GSI.
Joint Pushback Against US but Peace Proposal on Cards
On Ukraine, China has positioned itself as a peacemaker whose position is based on facts. Xi says, “China has all along upheld an objective and impartial position based on the merits of the issue, and actively proposed peace talks.” He noted that China's proposal is within the principles of the UN Charter, holding respect for legitimate security concerns for all countries …and ensuring the stability of global industrial and supply chains.” These are all contained in China’s 12-point peace proposal that was made earlier this month.
Putin concurred with this view when he said that Russia was “grateful for the balanced line of the PRC in connections with events taking place in Ukraine…. And we welcome China’s readiness to play a constructive role in resolving the crisis.”
The bottom line seems to be that both sides were speaking past each other to the international community. The Chinese wanted to tell the world that they are a responsible power and are seeking to promote peace and stability, while the Russians were keen to show that the PRC is with them as a supporter.
On the eve of the visit, the Chinese informed that Xi intended to speak to President Volodymyr Zelensky for the first time since the beginning of the war but indicated that the conversation would occur after he returned from Moscow.
This was clearly an effort to frame the visit as a mission for peace rather than one of building a new military alliance. It is also in keeping with Beijing’s efforts to promote itself as a global power broker following its role in the surprise breakthrough in Saudi-Iran relations.
The reality, however, was expressed by Chinese foreign minister Qin Gang who said at his first press conference that an invisible hand has been “using Ukraine crisis to serve certain geopolitical agendas.” The Chinese discourse on the Ukraine war clearly blames the United States for the crisis.
China’s Diplomatic Stand on Ukraine Crisis
On the eve of the first anniversary of the war, a 12-point document on “China’s position on the political settlement of the Ukraine crisis” was issued. Though there was a veiled warning against the use of nuclear weapons, the paper also took issue with “Cold war mentality” and “unilateral sanctions” obviously targeting the United States. It indirectly criticised the US and NATO for pursuing “one’s own security at the cost of others."
But it stopped short of calling for an immediate ceasefire, and neither did it take a position on the territory occupied by the Russians in Ukraine. The Chinese wanted a dialogue which would “gradually de-escalate the situation and ultimately reach a comprehensive ceasefire.”
There was a sharp contrast between the US and western resolution passed on the same day by the UN General Assembly calling for an immediate Russian withdrawal from Ukraine. The proposal was opposed by Russia while China abstained and 141 countries supported it.
China’s US-Focussed Strategy
There is a three-way dynamic at work in Russia-China-US relations just as it has been in recent history. Stalin’s support ensured the victory of the Communist Party of China in the civil war and its massive aid in the 1950s helped the country to emerge as an industrial and military power. But the two fell out in the 1960s and the US wooed China in a bid to isolate the Soviet Union (Russia), Beijing and Moscow became quasi-allies in the 1980s and 2001, aided China to enter the WTO, an act that transformed it into a manufacturing and exporting behemoth, but since 2017, the US has declared China to be a strategic competitor.
So, China went back to looking at Russia as a source of oil and other commodities and some advanced military technology. The Ukraine war has shifted the dynamics of the relationship in China’s favour. It is the Russians who are now seeking weapons and ammunition for their war effort and are selling vast quantities of discounted oil to China. Trade with China is now 30 percent of Russia’s total imports and exports, but just 3 percent of China’s, giving the latter massive leverage over the former.
But the focus of Xi’s policy is not Russia or Europe, but the United States. Earlier this month, he accused the US for leading a campaign of “containment, encirclement, and suppression” of China and said this could have “catastrophic consequences.” He accused the US of attempting to block Chinse development and called on the public to “dare to fight.”
The Chinese now believe that they are in a long-term confrontation with the US which could lead to war over Taiwan and for this they need all the allies they can. Given the current lineup where Japan has declared its intention of doubling its military budget and the Europeans have lined up behind the Americans over Ukraine, China has few options. A Russian setback in Ukraine could lead to even greater pressure on China and so, Beijing has adopted a policy which features a public posturing of peace, even while remaining firmly aligned with Russia.
So, some analysts suggest that while the Chinese are selling the visit as a peace mission of sorts, its real intention is to tighten the political and military alliance which could mean more Russian oil and gas for China, and in turn Chinese chips and other technology exports to Russia. But these details are unlikely to be revealed.
Whether the Chinese will supply attack drones and artillery ammunition and other military equipment remains to be seen. But such a decision would have implications for China’s self-professed posture as a peace-maker and have implications for its emerging global positioning.
With Xi's visit, a power play seems imminent that is likely to dictate the global order and India must take the signs seriously when it comes to strategic ties and national security.
(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for his reported views.)
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