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The Xi-Putin Relationship - A Strategic Balancing Act: Caution Advised Against Assumptions of a Shift in Chinese Intentions

Mar 27, 2023

President Xi, having been re-confirmed as the Chinese leader of the Communist Party, made his first visit outside China to Moscow for three days in March 2023. This visit had very high symbolic importance. It came at a time when Putin became an indicted war criminal – making it much more difficult and dangerous for Putin to appear outside the Kremlin and his various dachas. He did not even welcome his "very good friend" Xi at the airport.

As always, when interpreting the intentions of these two major powers, caution is advised, and the need to study actions more than words is obvious.

Analyzing the seemingly very ambitious language in the Russian-Chinese joint statement  “Deepening the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership of Coordination for the New Era,” it is also helpful to go back to read the language of the Chinese official evaluation of the German Chancellor's visit to Beijing in November of last year: “China will work with Germany for a future-oriented all-round strategic partnership and for new progress in China-Germany and China-Europe relations.”

Russia remains statistically a medium-size partner to China in trade terms on the level of states like Malaysia and Thailand. Trade has increased, not least in terms of Russian exports of fuels to China and, notably, India. In this way, Russia has been able to compensate somewhat for the effects of Western sanctions. Exports from China to Russia have increased much less so far, and there are limitations in terms of logistics, etcetera. It is unclear whether China will expose its more sophisticated high-tech lethal equipment to being used by less professional soldiers and maybe captured by the West on the battlefield in Ukraine. In addition China and indeed Chinese companies would have to expect sanctions which they so have sought to avoid.

A reasonable assumption seems to be that Beijing will do what is necessary to make Russia truly dependent on China, for it to be able to make plans for the long-term exploitation of Russian natural resources and to keep an avenue for shipping through the Arctic passage, as it is gradually opening up due to climate change. China will seek to establish leverage vis-a-vis Russia for exploiting natural resources along a 4500 km long common border with an enormous landmass on the Russian side in Siberia which may benefit from climate change in terms of exploitation possibilities.

Allowing Russia to implode cannot be an acceptable Chinese option. At the same time, serious escalation and proliferation of hostilities to other arenas where China does not control escalation risks are also not desirable.

To make investments in ports etc., in the Arctic worthwhile, there must be someone to trade with in Europe.

A drastic implementation of the notion of isolation of the Golden billion, the Russian conspiracy theory about Western elites, cannot be in China's interest. In that order, China's biggest trading partners after ASEAN are the EU, the United States, South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan. Russia comes in much later in that list at place 10, followed by Brazil, India, and other BRICs and SCO powers.

China needs, not least for domestic political reasons after the traumatic pandemic, to return to earlier growth figures. This requires flow security at sea (21st Century Maritime Silk Road), where some 90% of all goods are transported and virtually, including through submarine cables in the South China Sea and worldwide.

Long-term secure solutions to reaching Europe and Central Asia on land (Silk Road Economic Belt) have been more difficult to find due to factors such as the Afghanistan conflict, climate change in Pakistan, and Iran's instability. Serious air traffic restrictions due to the pandemic and the war in Ukraine also do not help.

On balance, it would seem in the Chinese interest to use the Ukraine War to respond to US decoupling efforts to distract Western attention from the Taiwan issue. China has a strategic interest in decoupling Europe from the United States. Therefore, it is only natural that concern is expressed in the joint communiqué about NATO's increased involvement in Asia.

In this sense, a limited level of conflict between Russia and the West may be worth supporting from a Chinese perspective. Sanctions have also made it possible for China to require more trade with Russia in the Chinese currency yuan, which is a strategic goal for China.

At the same time, China needs to keep a working relationship with Europe as well, seeking to diminish apprehensions in Europe vis-a-vis Chinese intentions also in the long-term regarding intelligence and technology, as the TikTok and Huawei controversies illustrate.

Reading the joint Chinese-Russian communiqué from the Xi visit, the intention was to demonstrate unity on a number of essential principles, including the one promulgated by the Security Council. Permanent members in early 2022 that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. That the Chinese leadership would welcome an escalation to the nuclear level on issues that are not vital to China remains more than improbable.

However, in the eyes of the West, such a declaration has almost lost news value over the last year, given the large number of occasions that Russia has been threatening to use nuclear weapons. A few days after this declaration, Russia announced its intentions to deploy sub-strategic nuclear weapons to Belarus.

The predictive value of the joint communiqué regarding Chinese and Russian policies seems more evident when it comes to China than Russia. For Russia, what is happening in and around Ukraine is of existential importance to the Russian leadership.

This is certainly not the case for China which has many other interests to cater to. Words are insufficient to underpin an assumption that China will firmly support a further Russian escalation of the war against Ukraine if this would mean proliferation outside Ukraine. Likewise, words do not so far indicate a serious Chinese intention to mediate between Moscow and Kyiv. Kyiv is ready to talk to Beijing, but as far as is publicly knowledge, such talks have not yet taken place. Any serious effort to mediate would of course need to start with consultations with the parties concerned. China in its 12-point peace plan presupposes a non-expansion of NATO  and avoids being explicit as regards what respect of the territorial integrity of all states concerned means – before or after the Russian integration of parts of Ukraine from 2014 onwards?


Lars-Erik Lundin