Xi Jinping’s three-day visit to Moscow this week showcases the growing closeness between the Chinese Communist Party leadership and the Kremlin. But it also highlights disparities and dilemmas.
China and Russia see the Ukraine war quite differently. Putin understands (correctly) that a pro-Western, successful, and democratic Ukraine poses an existential threat to his kleptocratic neo-imperialism. He is prepared to wreak havoc in order to forestall such a prospect. China by contrast would like Ukraine to be orderly and prosperous — it would be a better export customer, a more reliable supplier and a better investment destination. NATO and EU membership for Ukraine also poses no security worries for China.
Putin’s propaganda likes to depict Russia as a besieged fortress, surrounded by decadent-yet-menacing Western foes. Western unity reinforces that message. He does not mind it. Xi, by contrast, urgently needs to keep the European Union from joining fully the American-led coalition that increasingly constrains and counters his ambitions. As his country struggles back from covid-related shutdowns, Xi’s aim is to boost China’s economic fortunes, not to incur new sanctions.
For Russia, Chinese diplomatic, economic, and (limited) military support comes at a price. As the now-exiled commentator Andrei Piontkovsky has repeatedly warned, an alliance between Russia and China is one between “a rabbit and a boa constrictor”. Russia used to be a more advanced country than China, particularly in military terms. Now that gap has largely closed. China is roughly ten times bigger in population and economic clout, while Russia, a country obsessed with natural resources, is uncomfortably aware that its giant eastern neighbour has a correspondingly giant appetite for raw materials.
Fear of China was why Russia’s previous policy balanced anti-Western rhetoric with pragmatic deeds, exemplified by energy exports to the European Union. Its non-Western ties with dictators in African countries, Syria, Venezuela and elsewhere cannot not counterbalance the lopsided relationship with Beijing. Friendship with China may be tactically smart; but it is strategically stupid.
China too faces dilemmas. Russia may be an increasingly useful friend, but it is also a difficult one. The war crimes warrant for Putin’s arrest, on the charge of abducting children from occupied Ukraine, makes him a pariah in much of the world. Russia is becoming a rogue state: albeit more like Iran than North Korea. True, the Chinese regime is no stranger to kidnapping children either (remember, not least, the Panchen Lama, abducted at the age of five in 1995, who has never been seen since). But by supporting Putin Xi becomes responsible for his protégé’s other misbehavior, such as nuclear saber-rattling. He can expect every Western interlocutor to drive home this point at summits or when visiting Beijing.
More dauntingly, Xi must work out how to be a credible broker of an Ukraine-Russian peace deal, while remaining a close friend of Putin’s. This looks almost impossible. Apart its recent Saudi-Iranian deal, China has struggled in multilateral diplomacy (notably regarding next-door North Korea). In Ukraine, it starts from scratch, or worse. A phone call from Xi to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy will be the belated start of Chinese engagement but no basis for intervention. Ukraine is in no mood to compromise: Russia’s offensive has stalled, Western arms are arriving and a counter-attack is looming. Xi’s only real leverage is to threaten to provide more substantial military help for Russia. But that risks further angering the United States. Unless he seeks a showdown with the West right now, this option looks highly unattractive.
Yet having launched his peace bid, Xi risks losing face if it fails. He will not lightly forgive Putin for this costly and dangerous mess.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.