It’s a friendship testing the limits. Chinese leader Xi Jinping left Russia on Wednesday after three days of talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin, in which Putin endorsed China’s “peace plan” for Ukraine and the two leaders stressed the need to “respect legitimate security concerns of all countries” to end the war—a talking point Russia has used to blame NATO and legitimize its war of aggression. What did this visit do for Putin’s international standing? What role might China play in the war? How should Washington view this partnership? Below, our experts cut through the pageantry and diplomat-speak.
China has doubled down on relations with Russia
Xi’s meetings with Putin and the joint statements released on Tuesday should dispel any remaining doubts that Xi has doubled down on relations with Russia over the past year even as Putin has unleashed his punishing war on Ukraine. Xi, intent upon preventing Russian failure in Ukraine, is supporting Putin’s continued ability to prosecute the war in numerous ways short of sanctions violation while deepening the countries’ military and economic ties.
At the same time, Xi is calling for peace and parroting Kremlin narratives about US and NATO culpability for “fanning the flames,” underscoring his belief that China can capitalize on this moment to bolster China’s claims to responsible global leadership. To that end, Beijing’s so-called “peace plan” is a gambit to remain faithful to Russian interests in maintaining control over illegally occupied territory in Ukraine while claiming neutrality and building China’s burgeoning reputation as a peacemaker following its brokering of an initial rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran earlier this month. These efforts dovetail nicely with Xi’s Global Security Initiative, a vague framework for global cooperation and security designed to offer a Chinese alternative to the US-led global order and rooted in principles repeated in yesterday’s joint statement such as opposition to “blocs” like NATO. Xi seems to view Russian partnership as essential not only to China’s bid to revise the global order but to girding for an expected protracted strategic competition with the United States as US-China ties grow ever more fraught. In particular, Russia is viewed as critical to mitigating the People’s Republic of China’s vulnerability to US actions in the event of a war over Taiwan and devising an alternative to the US-centric global financial system.
As the limits to the “no limits” partnership grow harder to discern, the United States and its allies must reconcile themselves to dealing with an authoritarian entente that will complicate mutual security interests in Europe and Asia, distort global narratives, and undermine the liberal underpinnings of multilateral institutions in the years ahead.
—David O. Shullman is senior director of the Global China Hub at the Atlantic Council and former US deputy national intelligence officer for East Asia on the National Intelligence Council.
Putin won’t even take the first step to legitimize China’s sham ‘peace plan’
Putin’s faltering war on Ukraine was the backdrop of Xi’s long state visit to Moscow this week, but it suited both parties not to single out the conflict. While the international community and media were paying particular attention to this issue, the visit was scripted to cover a broad array of bilateral and international issues of which Ukraine was simply one. The reason for this is simple. Moscow’s failures on the battlefield and its international isolation are problems that neither Putin nor Xi wants to highlight. They are, however, also problems that both leaders need to manage—even as their interests are overlapping but not identical.
Putin is in a difficult spot and would like more support from China—political, economic and even military. Xi would like to strengthen Putin’s hand, but does not want to risk Western sanctions, nor international criticism by explicitly endorsing Russian aggression. These considerations provided the drama before Xi ever boarded a plane for Moscow. The news reported that Washington believed China was considering sending arms to Russia and that doing so would lead to major sanctions. China denied these reports. But there is growing evidence that at least some Chinese weapons—rifles—and components for drones have been sent to Russia. Beijing may well be probing for what it can do without provoking a strong US response. In any case, this issue did not factor in the public discussion of the visit by either China or Russia.
The big Ukraine development at the summit was Putin’s general endorsement of China’s twelve point approach to peace in Ukraine. Putin thought the Chinese document was “consistent” with Moscow’s policy and could serve as a “basis” for negotiations when Kyiv and the West were ready to talk. This was hardly a ringing endorsement. That is no surprise because the Chinese plan contains elements—such as respect for territorial integrity—that Moscow has already violated and has no intention of respecting. China’s peace proposal is meant to help Moscow while enabling Xi to posture as a neutral party. But despite his failures on the battlefield, Putin still holds maximalist aims that makes him reluctant to take the one step that might give the Chinese peace initiative something to build on—announcing his readiness for an immediate ceasefire in place. It was precisely this possibility that prompted warnings from Washington and others about the dangers of the Chinese proposal. But Putin’s ongoing intransigence rendered this concern irrelevant—at least for now.
Plans are apparently underway now for a Xi phone call to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. This is part of Beijing’s charade that it is neutral and a logical mediator in a crisis that it refuses to call a war. If it comes off, little will come of it because Ukraine will insist, as National Security Chief Oleksiy Danilov said this week, that the plan’s reference to territorial integrity means the war must end with either the withdrawal or capitulation of Russian troops.
Perhaps the big winner this week of grand diplomacy was not Xi or Putin, but Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida. While Xi was giving a big hug to recently indicted war criminal Putin, Kishida visited Kyiv and Bucha to pay homage to the victims of those war crimes.
—John Herbst is senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center and former US ambassador to Ukraine.
Putin and Xi are building an alternative world order—with Russia as the vassal state
The Xi-Putin summit is a continuation of the ongoing process through which both China and Russia are decoupling from the West, politically and economically, and replacing those ties with a deeper bilateral relationship. The main aim of that partnership is to reduce their vulnerabilities to, and ultimately roll back, US global power. For both, this has been and continues to be a conscious choice. Putin chose to sacrifice his ties to the West when he invaded Ukraine. Xi has convinced himself that the United States is implacably opposed to his country’s rise, and he is therefore seeking to ensure China’s “national rejuvenation” by forging an foreign policy focused on confronting Washington, with a partnership with Russia as a key feature.
In light of that, both sides got what they wanted out of the summit. Putin continues to benefit diplomatically and economically from closer ties to China as he pursues his Ukraine war. Xi got to play the grand international statesman, carrying a purported “peace plan” in his pocket, all the while deepening ties to Russia and making the country more dependent on China.
There are risks for both as well. By taking this course, Putin is turning Russia into, in effect, a vassal state of China. Over time, as the power imbalance in the relationship continues to widen in China’s favor, Moscow will find itself less and less able to chart an independent foreign policy or deviate from alignment with Beijing’s interests. That, of course, suits Xi just fine, since he gets greater leverage over Moscow. For Xi, the love-fest with the man who started the worst European war in eighty years will further consolidate the view among the United States and its democratic allies that China is a threat, tightening a coalition against Xi, and thus bringing about the very scenario he fears he must counter. In the process, Xi is turning against key sources of trade, investment, and technology (the United States and European Union) in favor of a relationship with Russia that cannot replace what is potentially being lost. That doesn’t bode well for China’s already struggling economy.
I’d be very, very, very cautious about the talk of negotiations to end the Ukraine war that was a feature of the summit. Putin’s comments expressing interest in peace talks strikes me as a throwaway statement, something any leader at war would say. As for Xi, if he sincerely reaches out to Zelenskyy and tries to mediate a settlement, I wish him all the best. More likely, Xi’s supposed interest in diplomacy is a cynical public-relations stunt to make it appear that China is a responsible world power while deepening ties to Russia. The two autocrats are using China’s “peace plan” to create an alternative narrative that blames the United States for causing and perpetuating the war. In my view, the outcome of the summit makes peace in Ukraine less likely. With such strong backing from Xi, Putin is unlikely to feel much pressure to make concessions to the West.
Xi’s approach to Russia is representative of his changing foreign policy overall. First, Xi has fully embraced anti-Americanism and that has become the primary driver of its foreign policy. Secondly, writing off the United States and its partners as inherently hostile, Xi is reorienting China’s foreign policy to focus on the developing world, where which Beijing believes is more fertile ground for building support for Chinese interests. There China can create unequal relationships which it dominates politically and economically, as with Russia. In Beijing’s planning, those relationships will form the basis of an alternative world order centered on China and controlled by Beijing. Russia is key to that vision.