Russian President Vladimir Putin has invited his international “best friend”, China’s leader Xi Jinping, to Moscow for a three-day state visit beginning March 20. There’s sure to be plenty of glad-handing, champagne toasts, a major press conference and – behind closed doors – serious discussion.
For Xi, it’s a high-profile trip: his first state visit to any country since being appointed to an unprecedented third term in office. Kremlin officials say the two leaders will be signing “important documents” that will “deepen relations” and solidify economic cooperation. But for both men, this trip is much more than just another chapter in what they both describe as a “no limits” friendship.
For Putin, it’s a welcome show of support from his biggest ally after a year of military failure to attain his so-called goal of “de-Nazifying and de-militarizing” Ukraine. Putin’s army is burning through military hardware, ammunition – and men. He has reached out to North Korea and Iran for weapons and drones, but getting more weapons, ammunition and perhaps drones from China would be a major victory for the Russian president. However, that could be a hard sell.
So far, Xi has been helping Putin by sticking to a delicate balancing act: refusing to publicly condemn Putin’s war and blaming the West for “provoking” Russia, while strengthening economic ties but stopping short of providing “lethal” military aid to Moscow.
A CNN investigation revealed a Chinese state-owned defense contractor was sending helicopter parts and air-to-ground radio equipment to Russia throughout 2022, but that doesn’t appear to add up to “lethal weapons.”
The United States claims Beijing is “considering” providing military aid but, so far, the Biden administration says it has seen “no indication” the Chinese leadership has decided to proceed.
While Putin seems intent on fighting to the finish in Ukraine, Xi arrives in Moscow trying to burnish his credentials with a 12-point plan that would begin with a ceasefire. China’s Foreign Ministry says the propositions “boil down to one sentence, which is to urge peace and promote talks.”
The Kremlin says the plan deserves “careful attention” but the spokesman for President Joe Biden’s National Security Council, John F. Kirby, says the proposed ceasefire is tantamount to “ratification of Russian conquest,” allowing Russian troops to remain in place, occupying parts of a sovereign country.
Xi is also making overtures to Ukraine, allowing China’s Foreign Minister to speak to his Ukrainian counterpart, urging peace talks. Will Xi reach out to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky after his meeting with Putin?
Putin has other things on his Chinese wish list. Western sanctions are cutting off Moscow’s access to microchips and other sophisticated technology crucial for Putin’s military industrial complex; China is a leading producer of those components. China, however, faces a dilemma: it officially opposes economic sanctions but – so far at least – is trying not to violate them, fearing Chinese companies themselves might end up being sanctioned.
The Russian leader wants more trade with China, and Beijing is hungry for more Russian oil, but there’s a downside for Putin. Europe has stopped importing Russian oil and most natural gas. Russia is making up for that by selling to India and China – but at discount prices.
On Putin’s geopolitical wish list, Xi has expressed solidarity with Putin but he doesn’t appear to be fully on board with Putin’s onslaught against Ukraine – at least publicly. Even as the Russian president has made multiple thinly veiled threats to use nuclear weapons, Xi has warned against any such actions. On the crucial issue of sovereignty, Beijing is performing another balancing act by not criticizing Russia’s violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty, while at the same time reaffirming that the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries must be upheld. China is watching the Ukraine war, taking notes and drawing conclusions for any future possibility that Beijing might invade Taiwan and that’s complicated: insisting that China’s sovereignty be respected, while denying Taiwan’s claim to its own.
Still, as Putin and Xi sit down for talks, they seem to agree unreservedly on one thing: both want an end to the post-World War II “liberal world order” guaranteed by the United States. Both want to challenge the military and economic hegemony of the US. China would likely quietly welcome a Russian victory that humiliated the US and Ukraine’s western allies.
But while Putin is a “true believer” in the West’s demise, Xi must surely be dismayed by Russia’s faltering military performance on the battlefield. The International Criminal Court’s arrest warrant for Putin over alleged war crimes is another troubling sign for the strategic partners, even if neither Russia nor China recognizes the court’s jurisdiction. Russia’s damaged economy can never make up for the loss of the European and American markets that would likely ensue if China wholeheartedly took Russia’s side.
Putin’s “Chinese wish list” may turn out yet to be wishful thinking.