The writer is an
analyst and the
President of All
Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin met in Moscow, visit’s top agenda was Ukraine with a 12-point offer specific to end the bloodshed. China has a good relationship with Russia and Ukraine as strategic partners, and the two nations have had long-term friendly exchanges. During the conflict, China maintained communication with Ukraine as well. As global powers, the relationship between China and Russia is more special. Many Chinese sympathize with Russia and fully understand Russia’s security demands. What Russia wants is for NATO to stop expanding eastward and not to station or deploy missiles and troops in Ukraine. Russia wants a safer adjacent border environment. Only the United States and NATO can provide answers to these questions. The Chinese leader’s visit to Moscow comes days after the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for Putin for war crimes allegedly committed in Ukraine. Putin said a Chinese proposal to end the conflict could be used as the basis of a peace settlement, but the West and Kyiv were not yet ready. The United States has been dismissive of China’s peace plan and said a ceasefire would lock in Russian territorial gains and give Putin’s army more time to regroup. The power dynamics are reversed and now China, the world’s second superpower, is a senior partner to Russia now enfeebled and isolated by its war on Ukraine and more dependent than ever on China for economic, technological, and diplomatic support. In 1949, a new tune hit Soviet airwaves in honor of Chinese leader Mao Zedong’s first visit to Moscow. “Moscow-Beijing” was a hearty military march sung by an all-male choir, with a catchy opening line—“Russians and Chinese are brothers forever”—capturing the spirit of socialist solidarity. But, it is premature to call Russia a vassal state to China, dependency does not equal subservience. Russia remains a major nuclear power and a globally significant exporter of energy, resources, and food. The Russian economy—while damaged—has so far demonstrated remarkable resilience in the face of Western sanctions. Russia has a strategic bulk that China needs as it prepares for long-term competition and potential conflict with the United States. China and Russia share one of the longest land borders between nation-states, one that has been peaceful for decades, giving both countries a breathing space to face their respective adversaries in the East and West. So while diminished and lonely on the world stage, Russia still has agency and heft in its relationship with a more dominant and powerful China. China—facing a hostile United States, disillusioned Europe, and a slowing economy at home—also needs Russia in its corner in its quest to become a global rule-setter and the dominant power in Asia. Russia is publicly supportive of China’s plans. Putin announced that China’s peace plan could be the basis of the resolution of the war, when and if Kyiv and its Western backers are ready. This is a win for China. But it does not entice either Moscow or Beijing to do anything else. China does not want Russia to lose the war and descend into chaos—or worse, face regime change—from which a different Russia, less sympathetic to China, might emerge. China’s support for Russia is unwavering, but its messaging to other countries is much more neutral and moderate.
The power dynamic between Beijing and Moscow has switched dramatically. If the United States and the West hope to resolve the Ukrainian crisis they should support China’s proposals for peace.
Beyond the immediate theatrics of the visit, China and Russia keep getting closer. Xi is in Russia to reap also the economic rewards of Russia’s global isolation. China has now solidified its status as the main supplier of basic but critical technologies, electronics, telecommunications, machinery, and cars—the sectors most severely affected by Western sanctions. If Russian trade data is to be believed, in January and February Chinese exports to Russia grew by nearly 20 percent to a total of $15 billion, and imports from Russia climbed by more than 31 percent to $18.65 billion. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Russia, the two countries agreed to a set of proposals that would expand their natural gas trade as well as other economic ties. The proposed deals represent something of a lifeline for Russian President Vladimir Putin, isolated from the West because of sanctions imposed on Russia after his decision to wage a full-blown war across the border in Ukraine. Moscow is a new planned pipeline, dubbed Power of Siberia 2, that could supply China with about 50 billion cubic meters of Russian gas annually. By 2030, Russia will supply China with at least 98 billion cubic meters, in addition to 100 million tons of liquefied natural gas, through the new pipeline. The yuan has surpassed the U.S. dollar as the most traded currency on the Moscow stock exchange. Russia overtook Saudi Arabia as China’s largest oil supplier, with nearly 24 percent year-on-year growth in the first two months of this year. China is clearly the top dog in the relationship, with an economy more than 10 times larger than Russia’s, a rapidly modernizing military, technological superiority, and global diplomatic weight. China also ramped up purchases of Russian energy and commodities at a discounted price. The cornerstone of Russia’s forced diversification strategy is economic connectivity with China. Xi’s visit has delivered: Among the outcomes are agreements on clearing the final hurdles in the Power of Siberia 2 gas pipeline, ramping up food and agricultural trade, a joint commission to develop cooperation on the Northern Sea Route in the Arctic, and greater use of the yuan in Russia’s trade with countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. For Putin, the visit is an opportunity to ensure the critical lifeline that China provides to an embattled Russia is intact and can be expanded. Putin’s big ask is for political-diplomatic and technical-military support for his war. Unless China sees an imminent collapse of Russia on the battlefield and the ensuing chaos in the Kremlin, it is not in China’s interests to lift its support for Russia so dramatically, at a time when Beijing is trying to play peacemaker. But other forms of dual-use assistance are not out of the question, especially if Russia makes an offer of more preferential deals in energy or access to military technologies, the Arctic transport corridors, or the space program that so far has been out of reach to China. For Russia, deepening dependence on China is a forced choice. For China, it is an opportunity to expand its market share, secure critical energy supplies, and entrench Russia as its strategic backyard while watching and learning from Russia’s blunders on the battlefield and in its rapid decoupling with the West. Russia and China are in lockstep in their opposition to the U.S.-led global order. While both are committed to strategic autonomy, it is possible that they may be deepening their defense cooperation, as the United States strengthens its own alliances and deterrence strategies in Europe and Asia. China is set on becoming a global rule-setter and power broker. In the last few weeks, China has managed to facilitate a minor but symbolic diplomatic deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran, released its Global Security Initiative and Global Civilization Initiative, and engaged in intensive diplomacy in Europe and Russia. It’s China’s own interest in resolving the Russia-Ukraine conflict, Xi is expected to speak with Zelensky after his Moscow visit—the first time the two leaders will speak since Russia’s attack.
Last year, Xi unveiled a parallel vision for a Western-led order, dubbed the Global Security Initiative (GSI). A Chinese desire to move away from the alliance systems and global security architecture that the United States ushered into place in the aftermath of World War II, a status quo built by a Washington that Beijing frequently complains is still gripped by a Cold War mentality. In various forums, from meetings of the BRICS nations and Shanghai Cooperation Organization to newspapers in countries as far-flung as Kenya and the Solomon Islands, the Chinese have touted the GSI, as a new platform for global partnership. China has been very carefully constructing this new basically Asian and then global order. Chinese order may look like has been economic — think of massive efforts like the Belt and Road Initiative, where Chinese state companies invest in major infrastructure projects around the world. But as Xi settles into his third term as de facto president for life, we are also seeing the emergence of China as a more capable political actor. Beijing’s recent brokering of rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran. By mediating the Saudi-Iranian normalization agreement, China is veering into new territory, expanding its regional footprint from economic exchange to negotiated conflict resolution. The Biden administration has set about confronting China on various fronts— engaging in a full-blown trade war over key technologies, tightening security partnerships with other regional powers in Asia, and putting itself at the forefront of an ideological clash between liberal democracies and autocracies elsewhere. At the same time, regional leaders are also anxious about Washington’s deteriorating ties with Beijing and the potential for instability and conflict that may follow. The rigid thinking in Washington has made dialogue with a host of autocratic regimes difficult, if not impossible, and opened more space for China on the world stage to play a more proactive role. Although, the U.S., NATO, and partner nations have openly supported Kyiv since the start of the conflict, and China is widely seen as providing economic backing for Putin’s regime while avoiding being directly involved. China is not the cause of the Ukraine crisis, nor is it a party to the crisis. It is Western countries that are deeply involved in the crisis. From this perspective, the key to resolving the Ukrainian crisis is not in the hands of China, but in the hands of the United States and the West. Xi’s visit to Russia will be to promote peace, not to arm any party or encourage any party to fight the other. The Chinese government has never sold arms to any warring party or conflict area and has not done so during the Ukraine crisis. China is a major economy that has never waged or participated in any war in the past 40 years. The United States is the largest supplier of weapons on the Ukrainian battlefield. It has been delivering lethal weapons and constantly pushing up tensions. Realistically speaking, the top priority at the moment is not to resolve controversial issues such as allegations of war crimes, but to establish a ceasefire, stop the war, and rebuild the Ukrainian homeland. The power dynamic between Beijing and Moscow has switched dramatically. China is the only country among major powers that have systematically proposed a political solution to the Ukrainian crisis. If the United States and the West hope to resolve the Ukrainian crisis they should trust China’s experience, and support China’s proposals.