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When Russian President Vladimir Putin met with Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Uzbekistan last week, the mood was completely different from their triumphant meeting in Beijing weeks before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
No more was known about their “no-limits” friendship, announced on the opening day of the Winter Olympics. Instead, Putin acknowledged Beijing had “questions and concerns” About their faltering aggression, subtly for the extent of China’s support and the growing asymmetry in their relations.
In the Chinese readout of the meeting, Xi also did not mention the much-anticipated “strategic partnership” between Beijing and Moscow, said Xi Yinhong, an international relations professor at Renmin University in Beijing. Xi said it was the “most prudent, or least important statement in years” issued by Xi on their strategic relationship.
The change in tone is surprising given Russia’s humiliating defeat on the battlefield, which has exposed Putin’s weakness to his friends and foes alike. Those setbacks also come at a bad time for Xi, who is only weeks away from seeking a norm-breaking third term at a major political meeting.
Under Xi’s leadership, China has forged close ties with Russia. Already facing a domestic crisis from a slowing economy and his unreliable zero-Covid policy, Xi needed a projection of strength, not vulnerability, into his personally-backed strategic alliance.
Six days later, in a desperate escalation of the disastrous war, Putin announced in a televised speech a “partial mobilization” of Russian citizens, and even raised the specter of using nuclear weapons.
It is not known whether Putin discussed his planned escalation with Xi during his latest talks, as it remains an open question whether Putin last told Xi about his planned invasion of Beijing .
For some Chinese analysts, Putin’s shock and escalation of the war provided an opportunity for China to move away from Russia – a subtle shift that began with Xi’s meeting with Putin.
“China has no choice but to stay a little further away from Putin because of his escalation of war, his aggression and annexation, and his new threat of nuclear war,” said Xi of Renmin University.
“China does not want a fight (with) this unheard friend. What may be his fate on the battlefield is not a business manageable by China. ,
But others are more skeptical. Putin’s open admission of Beijing’s doubts is not a sign of a rift between the two diplomatic allies; Theresa Fallon, director of the Center for Russia Europe Asia Studies in Brussels, said that instead, it could be a way for China to achieve some diplomatic tussle, especially given that its tacit support for Russia has dented Europe. How has it damaged Beijing’s image?
“My impression was that Beijing just wanted a tiny bit of daylight between China and Russia, but I think many people have interpreted that,” she said. “I think it was more for a European audience.”
“For China’s long-term interests, they have to have Russia on board,” Fallon said.
The two authoritarian powers are strategically aligned in their attempt to balance the West. The two leaders share a deep suspicion and animosity towards the United States, which they believe is intent on keeping China and Russia down. they too Share a vision for a new world order – One that better accommodates the interests of its nations and is no longer dominated by the West.
Days after the meeting between Xi and Putin, Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Petrushev and China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi held security talks in the southern Chinese province of Fujian, promising to “implement the consensus” by their leaders. , deepen their strategic coordination And further military cooperation,
According to Putin, the two countries are also looking at deepening economic ties, with bilateral trade expected to reach $200 billion “in the near future”.
“I don’t think we’ve seen a major conflict between Russia and China,” said Brian Hart, a fellow on the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“I see this as a continuation of China trying to walk its very thin line on Russia and to ensure that it continues to support Russia to the extent it does without violating its interests.” could.”
So far, Beijing has cautiously avoided actions that violate Western sanctions, such as providing direct military aid to Moscow. But it has presented a lifeline to the battered Russian economy by increasing its fuel and energy purchases – at a bargain price. China’s Russian coal imports in August 57% increase Reaching a five-year high from the same period last year; its crude oil imports up 28% from one year ago.
After Putin called on military reservists to join the war in Ukraine, Beijing continues to walk the fine line, reiterating its long-standing stance for talks to resolve the conflict.
Asked about the possible use of nuclear weapons by Russia at a news briefing Wednesday, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry evaded the question.
“China’s position on the Ukraine crisis has been consistent and clear,” spokesman Wang Wenbin said. “We call on the parties concerned to achieve a ceasefire through dialogue and negotiation, and seek a solution that accommodates the legitimate security concerns of all parties at the earliest.”
Also on Wednesday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York.
According to the Chinese readout, Wang stressed that China will continue to “maintain its objective and impartial position” and “move forward to peace talks” on the Ukraine issue.
But that “fair position” was passed on to the prime evening newscast on China’s state broadcaster CCTV, the most-watched news program in China.
After a brief report on Putin’s “partial mobilization” – without any mention of protests or international condemnation in Russia, the program blamed an international observer entirely on the US for “continuing the conflict between Russia and Ukraine”. cited to blame.
“The conflict between Russia and Ukraine must be resolved through dialogue. But the US continues to supply weapons to Ukraine, which makes it impossible to end the conflict, and worsens the situation,” Timor-Leste A former national defense adviser was shown saying this.
“The sanctions resulting from the conflict have had a worldwide impact … Oil prices in Timor-Leste have also gone up tremendously. We are also bearing the brunt of this.”
The comments are in line with the Russian narrative that Chinese officials and state media have been busy promoting over the past months – that the US has instigated war by expanding NATO to Russia’s doorstep, forcing Moscow into a corner.
The main factor driving the strategic alignment between Russia and China, said Hart with CSIS, is the perception of threats from the United States.
“As long as that variable remains constant, as long as Beijing continues to worry about the United States, I think it will continue to strengthen ties with Russia,” he said.
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