China’s Special Representative for Eurasian Affairs, Li Hui, will visit Ukraine for the first time since Russia’s invasion to “promote peace talks.” During the diplomatic tour, which started on May 15th, the Chinese diplomat will also visit Poland, France, Germany, and Russia.
This is one of the most recent developments in a string of Chinese attempts to show its growing presence around the war in Ukraine. This also includes the first conversation between President Xi Jinping and President Volodymyr Zelensky since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Prior to this, on the anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, China published its “peace plan” to resolve the conflict. Also, back in March Xi Jinping visited Russia for the first time since his re-election for a third term as Chinese president. However, one should not consider Beijing’s actions unambiguously.
Why Does Russia Need China?
By visiting Russia, “dear friend” Xi Jinping, as Vladimir Putin calls him, gave him a big gift at the very moment when support is most needed. Modern Russia has never been as diplomatically isolated as it is today, and Putin himself has never been such a toxic politician as he was after the international criminal court in The Hague has issued an arrest warrant for him.
In addition to Xi Jinping, other high-ranking Chinese officials came to Russia at different times, but the visit of the main person was the most important.
After the visit, two main opinions were formed about the current state of Russian-Chinese relations. The first is that Russia has become a junior partner of China and now Beijing can force Moscow to act on its own orders. The second is that an alliance was formed between Russia and China and Xi Jinping came to support Putin in his aggression against Ukraine and to agree on the supply of weapons.
But apparently, this is just the case when the truth is somewhere in the middle: the two sides have something to offer each other, but it is far from a full-fledged union.
The answer to the question why the visits from Chinese side to Moscow are important for Russia is obvious. With the outbreak of war and the introduction of total Western sanctions against the Russian economy, Moscow has no other option but to increase its dependence on the PRC. In 2022, enough examples have accumulated to assert that the Russian economy is rapidly tilting towards China: today, about 40% of Russian imports go to China, the export of Russian energy resources to this country is breaking records, the yuan accounts for 33% of exchange trading and 14% of settlements in the domestic market, and some Chinese companies are capturing the shares of the Russian market left by global brands.
Politically, Xi’s visit was just as important to Putin’s reputation both inside and outside Russia. There are few leaders left who are ready to shake hands with the main global aggressor with a smile on their face, just as there are few countries that the Russian president can visit without any fear for his safety or reputation.
A more interesting question is: why did the leader of the world’s second largest power needed to visit a country like modern Russia?
Why Does China Need Russia?
Despite the toxicity of Russia, it remains important to Beijing for several objective reasons: a long-shared border, complementary economies, and the authoritarian nature of both regimes. However, every year a fourth element gains importance—a mutual consensus about the injustice of the world order in which the United States plays the main role.
Both Moscow and Beijing are trying to change global world order but using different methods. Russia seeks international attention and respect through conflicts such as those with Georgia in 2008 and the annexation of Crimea, and now through its war against Ukraine.
Beijing has a different approach. Largely thanks to the current world order, China has made a breakthrough in its development. China’s strategy, to put it in few words, would be to become an integral part of the world order to gradually make itself indispensable and eventually change it to suit Beijing’s needs. China already accounts for almost 20% of world GDP and almost 15% of all world exports of goods, as well as 12% of the annual UN budget.
But Beijing also needs supporters, those who share its vision for a “community of common destiny for mankind” (人类命运共同体).
It is difficult to find another country in the world that is as supportive of Beijing on this issue as Russia. And Russia is not just one of the developing countries with an unstable political system (the main audience for Chinese ideas), it is also a nuclear power with permanent membership in the UN Security Council. Moreover, in its confrontation with the West, Russia is willing to go much further than China itself, sacrificing its economic development and possibly even political stability.
If China and Russia are equally concerned about the present and future world order, why not create a full-fledged alliance similar to those that the United States has been building with other Western countries for many decades?
Beijing and Moscow obviously want the world to believe that their relationship is not just a forced rapprochement due to pressure from the West, but something much more durable and important. The term “alliance” would be appropriate in spirit, but it carries the expectation that countries will commit to entering all conflicts where a partner is involved as if it were one of their own.
Beijing does not want to take responsibility for Moscow’s unpredictable behavior. The Russian invasion of Ukraine and China’s reaction to it is an example of this fact. In its turn, Moscow does not want to get involved in territorial conflicts of China with its neighbors.
Real allies, realizing that the other side is at least partially responsible for their actions, warn each other of their intentions. Many interpreted Putin’s visit to Beijing 20 days before the invasion of Ukraine as a warning. During this visit, the parties signed a joint statement describing bilateral relations as a “friendship between two states that has no borders.” It was logical to assume that Beijing’s only demand was for Russia to wait with the invasion until after the Winter Olympics, which were important for China’s reputation.
But reality might be that Putin did not warn his “dear friend” Xi Jinping, and the war took the Chinese by surprise. This is evidenced by the fact that China did not evacuate thousands of its citizens from Ukraine in advance.
An alliance also implies that two or more countries have a formalized consensus on foreign policy priorities, not just similar views on individual issues. In other words, it is not enough for Russia and China to have common ideas about the injustice of the world order—their foreign policy priorities must almost completely coincide.
However, there is no such understanding between Russia and China. If there were, we would have already seen Beijing joining Putin’s aggression. So far, we see little evidence to that. Under the threat of secondary sanctions, some Chinese companies have reduced their presence in the Russian market, relocated employees, limited cooperation with Russian organizations, etc. For example, Huawei stopped accepting online orders and relocated employees to Central Asia. There have also been reports that Beijing has banned the export of Loongson (龙芯) processors to Russia and that the People’s Bank of China is restricting the presence of the UnionPay payment system in Russia.
From the first day of the war in Ukraine, Beijing found itself in an uncomfortable position: on the one hand, it agrees with Russia on the fight against US hegemony, but on the other hand, Moscow’s actions clearly contradict the principle of territorial integrity, which China uses to justify its claims to Taiwan.
Therefore, for more than a year, China has pursued a policy of strategic ambiguity, trying to behave neutrally and distance itself from the war as much as possible. Already by doing practically nothing, Beijing not only received an isolated and much more dependent Russia but also got the United States’ attention diverted from itself to supporting Ukraine.
Friendship With Limits
Shortly after the trip, Xi Jinping held the first online summit with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky since the beginning of the Russian invasion. Now a special envoy of the People’s Republic of China is going to Ukraine.
However, there is no need to have high expectations around Xi’s conversations with Zelensky and Special Representative Li Hui’s trip to Kiev. With such actions, China is trying to create the appearance of activity while doing nothing. It is in China’s interests to observe the situation from the outside and adapt to new realities.
There is much to observe. The war in Ukraine has finally given Beijing the opportunity to explore the Western sanctions strategy against one of the world’s largest economies. Beijing can also learn from all the difficulties Russia faces at the front and the ability of the Western coalition to coordinate efforts and resist one of the largest armies in the world. China is also watching the situation inside Russia, where prominent Chinese Russia experts even criticize Moscow’s foreign policy for its imperial approach and domestic policy for Putin’s conservative ideology, which is based not on a strong core of values but only a “discursive bubble” and an “empty shell of values.”
The PRC is also watching how the Russian propaganda machine handles public sentiment about the war and portrays its own war against Ukraine as yet another example of Washington’s unfair treatment of other countries. Perhaps Moscow’s only serious leverage over Beijing is that it has to adapt to events, the course of which Russia so far determines to a much greater extent.
While China is carefully studying the Russian experience (just as it is still carefully studying the history of the collapse of the USSR), Russian foreign policy itself continues to exist in a vacuum. Russian think-tanks and academia have practically no influence on decisions made. Accordingly, relations with China are supervised from the administration of the President of Russia—its role is separately mentioned in the joint statement.
The words with which the Russian president greeted his “dear friend” say a lot about Putin’s attitude towards modern China. “In recent years,” the President of the Russia said, “China has made a colossal leap forward in its development. All over the world, this causes genuine interest, and we even envy you a little.”
The sources of jealousy are understandable. Putin considers the collapse of the USSR “the biggest geopolitical catastrophe,” which is why he admires China, a country that, as it seems to the modern Russian elite, the Soviet Union could have transformed itself into. But it won’t be much of a revelation if it turns out that Putin’s understanding of China is just as distorted as his understanding of Ukraine and world history in general.
In justifying the war in Ukraine, Russian propagandists often say that “Russia was left with no other choice.” Now these same words will have to justify adjusting its interests to those of China. Russia really has no other choice, and this was the result of its leadership’s decisions. This is China’s main advantage in relations with Russia: unlike Moscow, Beijing has a large set of vectors for future development and its set of international partners depends on this.
It is symbolic that in such a difficult time for Putin’s Russia, the same wording from last year’s joint statement with China that many took as a declaration of allied relations has disappeared: “Friendship between the two states has no borders, there are no forbidden zones in cooperation.”
Now a similar paragraph reads: “The friendship of the two peoples, passed down from generation to generation, has a strong foundation and the comprehensive cooperation of the two states has the broadest prospects. Russia is interested in a stable and prosperous China, and China is interested in a strong and successful Russia.”
There were no limits in Russia’s friendship with China for just a little over a year.
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