As Xi Jinping, China’s leader, prepares to meet with President Vladimir V. Putin in Moscow this week, Chinese officials have been framing his trip as a mission of peace, one where he will seek to “play a constructive role in promoting talks” between Russia and Ukraine, as a government spokesman in Beijing put it, writes The New York Times.
But American and European officials are watching for something else altogether — whether Mr. Xi will add fuel to the full-scale war that Mr. Putin began more than a year ago.
U.S. officials say China is still considering giving weapons — mainly artillery shells — to Russia for use in Ukraine. And even a call by Mr. Xi for a cease-fire would amount to an effort to strengthen Mr. Putin’s battlefield position, they say, by leaving Russia in control of more territory than when the invasion began.
A cease-fire now would be “effectively the ratification of Russian conquest,” John Kirby, a White House spokesman, said on Friday. “It would in effect recognize Russia’s gains and its attempt to conquer its neighbor’s territory by force, allowing Russian troops to continue to occupy sovereign Ukrainian territory.”
“It would be a classic part of the China playbook,” he added, for Chinese officials to come out of the meeting claiming “we’re the ones calling for an end to the fighting and nobody else is.”
In an article published in a Russian newspaper on Sunday, Mr. Xi wrote that China had pursued “efforts to promote reconciliation and peace negotiations.”
Furthermore, BBC writes that to counter Western sanctions, and to shore up the Russian economy, Russia has been boosting trade with China, primarily in the energy sector. Expect oil, gas and energy pipelines to be on the agenda at the Putin-Xi talks.
But, once again, imagine you’re Putin. One year ago you and Xi proclaimed that your partnership has “no limits”. 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? The US claims that China is considering doing just that. Beijing denies it.
As they say in Russia, “there’s no harm wishing for something” – but it doesn’t mean it’s going to happen. If there’s one thing the last year has shown it is that the “no-limits partnership” does have limits. Up to this point Beijing has apparently been reluctant to provide direct military assistance to Moscow, for fear of triggering secondary sanctions in the West against Chinese companies. As far as Beijing is concerned: sorry Russia… it’s China first.
“Ahead of President Xi’s visit to Moscow, some experts here have been overexcited, elated even,” noted military pundit Mikhail Khodarenok.
“But China can have only one ally: China itself. China can only have one set of interests: pro-Chinese ones. Chinese foreign policy is utterly devoid of altruism.”
Officially Xi Jinping’s visit to Russia is to promote bilateral ties between two neighbours and certainly these governments say they are becoming ever closer.
There are agreements to be signed, meals to be had, photo opportunities to be staged.
All governments have such visits, so why all the attention on this one?
Well, for one, this is the leader of one of the world’s two great superpowers visiting an ally – who happens to be the person who has unleashed a bloody invasion of another country in Europe – in 2023.
Many analysts have pondered what China might do if it looks like Russia is facing a clear, humiliating defeat on the battlefield.
The Chinese government says it is neutral. Would it just step back and let that happen, or start pumping in weapons to give the Russian army a better edge?
After Xi arrives in Moscow, he and his Russian counterpart may speak about other things, but all the attention will be on the Ukraine crisis.
His signals to Vladimir Putin can only go three ways:
1. Time to consider pulling back with some face-saving compromise
2. Green light to keep going or even go in harder
3. Nothing either way from China’s leader
What is certain, writes Reuters, some foreign diplomats say, is that whatever deals are thrashed out by the two strongmen, Xi now has the upper hand in the relationship.
“It has been clear for some time that Russia is the junior partner to China but the war in Ukraine has really made that dominance much more stark,” a European diplomat said on condition of anonymity.
“Whatever support Xi gives to Russia will be on China’s terms,” another European diplomat said.