The meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and China’s President Xi Jinping on March 20 has been the most widely reported and commented meeting of the last few months. The meeting was characterized not only by the meeting of the heads of two powerful states, but also by the “personal bond” of the two leaders and the abundance of issues addressed.
How was the Putin-Xi Jinping meeting received in the US and Europe? This article exposes some of the main themes and leading assessments.
One of the distinguishing features of the meeting was “personal bond” between the two leaders, or if you like “blossoming romance” as frequently written in the US and Europe.This fact, which catches eyes even by few pictures in the press, has been one of the most highlighted points. The two leaders called each other “best friends” and raised a glass to the “deepening of the Russian-Chinese partnership”, or as Temur Umarov from the thinkthank Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has called it: “strategic bromance”.
Graham Allison reminds “Putin was the first leader Xi visited after becoming China’s president in 2012. Since then, the two have held 40 one-on-one meetings, twice as often as either has met with any other world leader”. This is a clue enough to have insight about their relations.
Olga Chyzh writes that “The three-day visit of Xi Jinping to Russia was packed with action: a crepe and quail meal, photo ops and ceremonial signings”, implying that there is a gap between reality and appearance as the headline of the article suggests, but still sharing a sort of bewilderment from the closeness of the two leaders.
Ruth Kirchner, the correspondent of Tagesschau in Beijing, compares the “physical distance” between Putin and Scholz with that of Putin and Xi Jinping: “Pictures played an even more important role: Putin and Xi by the fireplace, a tiny side table between them. You almost can’t get any closer than that. Who doesn’t remember the white six-meter table at which Chancellor Olaf Scholz had to sit during his visit to the Kremlin – even before the war began?”
Actually, it is not surprising that the relations between Putin and Xi Jinping have attracted so much attention. Indeed, I think it is clear that the ones who regard the other mere, as a means to its own short and narrow-minded ends cannot do the sentiment triggered by the two leaders.
Of course, the Putin-Xi Jinping friendship is not the friendship of two guys who met in the neighborhood, but is based on some common strategies and long term plans.
The first thing that comes to mind is the phrase “100 years”, what the President of China said to Putin just before leaving Moscow: “Together, we should push forward these changes that have not happened for 100 years. Take care”. 100 years” undoubtedly indicates a long-term perspective.
Similarly, the phrase “new era” in the title of the statement issued on March 22 demonstrates a consensus on the idea of an “era change”.
It is not a secret that a key component of this consensus is the multipolar world. And the two countries see NATO and US actions as a threat to peaceful coexistence based on the sovereignty of states. The two leaders urged NATO to “respect the sovereignty, security, interests,” of other countries, and the US “to stop undermining international and regional security and global strategic stability in order to maintain its own unilateral military superiority.”
Russia and China’s continuing emphasis on the Asia-Pacific, the region with the highest rate of armaments as the latest research of Stockholm International Peace Research Institute showed once again, falls within the common objectives of the strategy. China and Russia expressed serious concerns about the consequences and risks of the trilateral security partnership – AUKUS and related nuclear-powered submarine cooperation programs among the United States, Britain and Australia on regional strategic stability, NATO’s “continuous strengthening of military-security ties with Asia-Pacific countries.”
To get a more precise view, it would be better to place these in the frame of the comprehensive joint statement issued by Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin after their meeting on February 4, 2022. That statement was covering a large range of topics. Can be listed as follows:
* International relations of a new type
* A just multipolar system
* Building the Greater Eurasian Partnership
* Genuine democracy
(“The sides believe that the advocacy of democracy and human rights must not be used to put pressure on other countries. They oppose the abuse of democratic values and interference in the internal affairs of sovereign states under the pretext of protecting democracy and human rights.”)
* Oppostion to the interference in the internal affairs of sovereign countries (here the statement openly pronounces “colour revolutions”)
* Opposition to use of terrorist and extremist groupsOpposition to the sanctions (“power politics, bullying, unilateral sanctions, and extraterritorial application of jurisdiction”)
* States’ sovereign rights to regulate national segments of the internet
* Opposition to weaponization of space
* Call for abandoning the cold war mentality and zero-sum games (including nuclear weapons, global anti-ballistic missile defense systems)
Given this breadth of range, the words of Graham Allison in Foreign Policy can be better comprehended: “… the brute facts cannot be denied: Along every dimension—personal, economic, military, and diplomatic—the undeclared alliance that Xi has built with Russian President Vladimir Putin has become much more consequential than most of the United States’ official alliances today.”
Thomas Graham, an expert in The Council on Foreign Relations which is known with its influential in US foreign policy makes a similar determination: “With the pomp of a state visit, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping shined a spotlight on their growing strategic alignment, which is aimed at upending the U.S.-led, rules-based international order in favor of a multipolar world.
Putin welcomed the demonstration that Russia was not, and could not be, isolated on the world stage, as it deepened relations with one of the world’s two superpowers.”
On two of the pillars of this “growing strategic alignment”, the economy and the military, Graham Allison shares some remarkable insights:
“China was not only the world’s largest exporter to Russia in 2022, but it also accounted for the largest year-over-year increase in export volume to Russia of any country in the world. Last month, the Yuan overtook the dollar as the most traded currency on the Moscow Exchange for the first time ever, representing almost 40 percent of total trading volume.”
Graham Allison, citing a remark by CIA Director William Burns, writes that China has also been active in neutralizing sanctions on Russia:
“And despite Western sanctions intended to eliminate Russia’s access to critical technologies, Chinese exports of integrated circuits to Russia doubled in 2022. Indeed, in every area where China can support Russia without incurring major costs to itself—unlike lethal arms sales to Russia that violate U.S. sanctions, which CIA Director William Burns recently said China was “considering” but “reluctant to provide” — it has done so.”
China’s stance on Ukraine is a continuing hot topic in China-Europe relations. Especially whether it will provide military support to Russia. European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell stated that China had forged close economic and diplomatic ties with Russia, but it had not formed a military alliance with Moscow and had not supplied arms to help Russia with its war in Ukraine -a crucial point about which Borrell puts Europe’s mind at ease saying “China has not crossed any red lines for us.”
Ukraine aside, there is little doubt that Russia-China relations are also improving in the military dimension. Graham Allison writes “… while many Americans discount Sino-Russian military cooperation, as a former Russian national security advisor has put it to me, China and Russia have the “functional equivalent of a military alliance.” Allison also shares some scope of this “military alliance” covers: joint military (including air and naval) exercises, discussions about discussions about the threat U.S. nuclear modernization and missile defenses pose to each of their strategic deterrents, Russia selling S-400 air defenses, sharing intelligence and threat assessments as well as collaborate on rocket engine research and development, competing with Washington in a new era of space competition.
Can China be a peacemaker in Ukraine?
Many express “disappointments” about China’s possible role as a “peace maker” in Ukraine, it is difficult to judge how genuine the anticipation was before the meeting though. Zelenskyy has already invited Xi Jinping to Ukraine in an interview with the Associated Press. Despite this invitatation, prevailing opinion is negative regarding China’s role in a possible peaceful settlement.
National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters during a daily press briefing “President Xi (Jinping) saw fit to fly all the way to Moscow (but) hasn’t talked once to (Ukrainian) President (Volodymyr) Zelenskyy, hasn’t visited Ukraine, (and) hasn’t bothered to avail himself of the Ukrainian objective”, and consequently “We haven’t seen anything … that gives us hope that this war is going to end anytime soon.”
Ruth Kirchner gives not chance China’s efforts for peace: “The visit of China’s head of state Xi to Russia shows: Both countries have moved even closer together in recent months. China’s supposed peace efforts for Ukraine are thus finally turning out to be political theater.”
Reminding China’s involvement in restoration of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, some argue that China wants to assign itself the role of a “peacemaker”, with the subtext that it has a selfish goal of proving itself on the international stage. For example, Amy Hawkins writes “The official narrative in China is that the US responds to problems militarily, while China uses dialogue… There are signs that this narrative is catching on. Last week an alliance of rebel groups in Myanmar asked for China’s help in defusing the crisis that has ravaged the country since a coup in 2021.” However Hawkins adds that being both a strong ally to Putin and a “global peacemaker” cannot be true.
Arturs Krisjanis Karins too, the prime minister of Latvia during the meeting of European leader in Brussels, warned the ones under illusion: “If maybe many, many people were hoping that China could somehow be or take the role of a [peace] broker, China’s not doing this at all. China is certainly moving right now overtly on the side of Russia.”
Where Europe stands and will stand in the context of the US and Russia-China dichotomy is another durable matter. In this context, in an article in Politico that provides valuable insight, we are informed that “U.S. diplomats from London to Vienna to Berlin have shared China-related intelligence with their European counterparts to try to convince them that Beijing is considering sending weapons and to take a tougher economic and political stance on the country.”
An alliance with or despite differences?
The “differences” between the two countries are one of the focus areas for those who feel that the “deep friendship”, the “growing strategic alliance” and the “peacemaker” in Ukraine could lead to some unwanted results.
In fact, isn’t it quite natural that in every alliance, even when it is built on the most solid strategic basis where the parties are the closest to each other, certain differences are bound to arise? Given, in a world, views, feelings and priorities can be at variance even between two close friends, sisters or brothers, let alone between two states made up of two huge masses of human beings? Still, to what extent and on what issues the two countries are “different” is an issue worth pondering.
The most extreme kind of comments suggest that Xi Jinping sees Putin only as a means to his own ends. For example Olga Chyzh writes “By flirting with Putin, Xi is hoping to induce the west to cut back on its military excursions into China’s back yard… He will squeeze Russia for all it is worth, but when the time and opportunity presents itself he will have no qualms selling out his newly made friend and partner.” The article also warns the West: “Xi’s feigned rapprochement with Russia is an attempt to reverse these changes and to negotiate more favourable terms for himself. The west should not take the bait.”
Some others emphasize that the “partnership” or “alliance” has certain limits. This “limit” refers to the words in joint statement of the two countries on February 4, 2022: “Friendship between the two States has no limits, there are no ‘forbidden’ areas of cooperation”. BBC Russia editor Steve Rosenberg asks: “If that’s really the case, might you expect China now to help you out in Ukraine, by supplying Russia with lethal aid and facilitating a military victory for Moscow?”, and gives he himself the answer: “If there’s one thing the last year has shown it is that the “no-limits partnership” does have limits.”
European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell shares this opinion: “This unlimited friendship seems to have some limits” and stressed that Europe should welcome and push any attempts by Beijing to distance itself from Russia in the war in Ukraine.
Parallel to the “differences”, and to some extent as a reason for these differences, China’s “superiority over Russia” is one of the most addresses aspects.
Firstly, the striking headline came from the Economist: “The world according to Xi”. To the headline, Moscow, among other states, is travelling in an orbit around China or like Steve Rosenberg puts it “heavily reliant on Beijing”, or “Russia, weakened, appears to be more than ever in the palm of its ally’s hand.”
Similarly, Thomas Graham writes “Xi subtly let it be known that China is the dominant partner. Putin had little choice but to accept Xi’s proposal that Russia use the Yuan, not the ruble, in trade with the Global South to diminish the role of the U.S. dollar in world trade.”
The tone and implications of “malevolence” and “ulterior motives” abound in the analysis. Also, the facts are framed within the boundaries which take the hegemonic politics as a given. This aside, what the difference in power and leverage between partners or allies’ means and how to manage it should probably always be handled in a permanent way. It could be helpful to consider the opinions in the US and European press from this point of view.
 “Joint Statement of the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation on Deepening the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership of Coordination for the New Era” (https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/eng/zxxx_662805/202303/t20230322_11046088.html)