Some informed sources in Europe have claimed that the summit held by Russia and China in Moscow on the twentieth this month had initially been scheduled for Beijing. They claim that Russian President Vladimir Putin was supposed to head a delegation of ministers and economic figures on a trip to China. However, the program changed, and Chinese President Xi Jinping headed to Moscow instead because of the need to keep Russian ministers and officials close to their subordinates due to the circumstances of the Ukraine war.
However, the same sources claim that Chinese President Xi Jinping personally requested the change in location. He called Putin and told him that visiting Russia would signal to NATO the extent of his country’s support for Russia and send a much stronger message than the Russian president visiting Beijing would, as the latter scenario would be interpreted as Russia asking for aid.
President Xi Jinping led a delegation of 250 representatives from sectors: trade, industry, finance, defense, energy, construction, and transportation, among others, and he was accompanied by over one thousand other individuals, including diplomats, translators, journalists, and security personnel. During the five-day trip, Xi’s host sought to underline the depth of the relationship between the two countries and the robust personal friendship of the presidents.
Behind the festive scenes, the Chinese delegation negotiated contracts in various sectors, the most significant of which were $190 billion trade contracts. Perhaps more noteworthy is Russian Finance Minister Anton Siluanov’s announcement that all payments would be made in Yuan, which now makes up 48% of Russia’s foreign currency basket. The two countries also agreed to speed up work on the Power of Siberia 2 pipeline, through which 50 billion cubic meters of Russian gas are to be delivered annually to China, compensating for the suspension of Russian gas exports to Europe.
It is also important to note that the Chinese criticized NATO for interfering in the affairs of other countries.
It is clear that Russia is heavily reliant on China economically, politically, and even militarily, albeit unofficially. China is the safe haven of the Russian bear that is being hit with sanctions from all sides. It is the largest importer of Russian gas, oil, minerals, and agricultural materials, as fears of sanctions have deterred other countries from importing Russian raw materials and goods.
On the other hand, supporting Russia, whose economy is smaller than Italy’s, is not China’s ultimate concern. Indeed, China wants to inherit the Soviet Union, and its immense leverage over Russia’s decision-making makes the Asian giant a force to be reckoned with both in Europe and across the globe.
In his speech at the Annual Wilson Center Conference in New York last July, former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, the architect of Sino-American relations, said that what
China wants the international community, especially the United States, to recognize that it is a great power in a bipolar world.
Kissinger added that China’s expansion could not be hindered and that his country’s approach to dealing with China was misguided and futile. He also went to say that he wished he had been consulted by this and previous administrations, as he would have advised them to cooperate with China rather than confronting it, replicating the achievements of the 1970s, when the Wall of China opened and bridges were built with Chinese leader Mao Zedong and his foreign minister Zhou Enlai, bringing an end to the conflicts in Vietnam and Southeast Asia that had been costing the US dearly.
After filming the warm reception at the airport, Russian state TV zoomed in on Xi Jinping as he told Putin that he expected to be re-elected the following year. Before his trip, Xi signed an “opinion column” - an open letter of sorts - published by Russian state media describing the relationship between the two countries as one of “friendship, cooperation and peace.” This open letter called for increased economic trade between the two countries and stronger ties between their two people. It also discussed the war in two paragraphs, with Xi emphasizing the importance of respecting “legitimate security concerns of all countries” and repeating other broad statements Beijing has made in the past.
The West’s apprehension stems in part from Beijing’s obvious closeness to Moscow. Despite claiming to be neutral, China has continued to support Russia by purchasing raw materials and offering diplomatic protection at the United Nations. There have been reports that the US has warned China continuing to supply Russia with military aid after it emerged that China is sending non-lethal military equipment to Russia. China and Russia’s bilateral trade has increased by 36 percent since the war broke out, and they continue to conduct joint military exercises in places like the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea.
For all these reasons, the West does not see China as an objective mediator that can end the war in Ukraine. However, this does not imply that China cannot play a key role in future negotiations.
Kyiv, despite its skepticism, was more receptive to the US’ 12-point plan than parts of it. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said he wants to discuss the plan with Xi.
Despite its skepticism, Kyiv has been more receptive than the United States to China’s 12-point peace plan, stating that it fully welcomed parts of the plan, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said that he wished to discuss the plan with Xi.
Ultimately, Putin needs Xi more than Xi needs Putin. Since the start of the war, Russia has become increasingly isolated, both politically and economically, with China repeatedly coming to its rescue. This dynamic has rendered Russia the ‘junior partner,’ the one seeking assistance.
Moreover, Beijing does not support Moscow on the basis of deep historical ties or shared values. Rather, what appears to be a close friendship between the two leaders on the surface obscures the historical competition between their respective countries. The current affinity between the two is largely founded on sharing a common enemy, the United States.
The invasion of Ukraine showed that there are indeed limits to the “limitless friendship” (as it had been called only weeks before the invasion) between China and Russia. Beijing has found itself pushed into a diplomatic corner, with potential political and economic consequences regardless of the choices it makes.
To China, standing with Moscow, in order to achieve the long-term mutual goal of weakening the West, undermines its effort to deepen economic relations with Europe, a priority as it emerges from its “zero Covid” policy. Some in Europe are hopeful that the impact of Ukraine on China’s international position could ultimately outweigh the benefits of Xi’s partnership with Putin.
Most are more cautious, however, and doubt that this unequal friendship will translate into peace in Ukraine. As such, China may use its leverage, but not in pursuit of peace, as Beijing’s geopolitical and economic interests will be the priority.
Again, none of this means that there is no place for Beijing in peace talks. And there may be a time when peace in Ukraine aligns with Beijing’s pressing interests. For now, however, the tangible outcome of Xi’s visit is producing stronger economic ties between China and sanctions-bound Russia, and the legitimization of a leader wanted by the International Criminal Court, a court that Russia does not even recognize.