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When Russian President Vladimir Putin met with Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Uzbekistan last week, the mood was markedly different from the triumphant meeting in Beijing, weeks before Russia invaded Ukraine.
On the opening day of the Winter Olympics, their “boundless” friendship was not proclaimed. Instead, Putin admitted Beijing had “questions and concerns” about his invasion, in a subtle nod to the limits of China’s protection and the growing asymmetry of their relationship.
In his reading of the Chinese meeting, Xi did not even mention “strategic cooperation” between Beijing and Moscow, said Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Beijing’s Renmin University. It was Xi’s “most cautious or low-key statement in years” about their strategic relationship, Shi said.
The change in tone is not surprising given Russia’s string of humiliating battlefield defeats, which have exposed Putin’s vulnerability to friends and foes alike. The setbacks also come at a bad time for Xi, who is just weeks away from seeking a third term to break the rules at a key political meeting.
Under Xi, China has forged increasingly close ties with Russia. Already facing domestic problems from a slowing economy and his continued zero-Covid policy, Xi needed a projection of strength, not vulnerability, in the personally endorsed strategic alliance.
Six days later, in a desperate escalation of the destructive war, Putin announced a “partial mobilization” of the Russian people in a televised address, and even raised the specter of using nuclear weapons.
It is not known whether Putin discussed the planned escalation with Xi in recent talks, just as it remains an open question whether Putin told Xi about the planned invasion when they last met in Beijing.
For some Chinese analysts, Putin’s setbacks and escalation of the war offered an opportunity for China to distance itself from Russia, a subtle shift that began with Xi’s meeting with Putin.
“China has no choice but to distance itself somewhat from Putin because of his escalation of war, his aggression and annexation, and his renewed threat of nuclear war,” said Shi with Renmin University.
“China does not want to fight this friend who ignores it. What may be its fate on the battlefield is not a business that China manages at all.’
But others are more skeptical. Putin’s open acceptance of Beijing’s doubts does not necessarily indicate a rift between the two diplomatic allies; instead, it could be a way for China to make a diplomatic move, especially given that its tacit support for Russia has damaged Beijing’s image in Europe, said Theresa Fallon, director of the Center for Russia Europe Asia Studies in Brussels.
“My impression was that Beijing wanted some daylight between China and Russia, but I think that has been over-interpreted by many,” he said. “I think that was more for the European audience.”
“For China’s long-term interests, they need to keep Russia on board,” Fallon added.
The two authoritarian powers are strategically aligned in an effort to counterbalance the West. Both leaders share a deep suspicion and hostility towards the US, and are believed to be keen to contain China and Russia. They also share a vision of a new world order that better suits the interests of their nations and no longer dominates the West.
Days after the meeting between Xi and Putin, Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev and China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi held security talks in southern China’s Fujian province, vowing to implement the consensus reached by their leaders, deepen strategic coordination and move forward. military cooperation
The two countries are also looking to deepen economic ties, with bilateral trade expected to reach $200 billion in the “near future,” according to Putin.
“I don’t think we saw a big schism opening up between Russia and China,” said Brian Hart, a fellow at the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“It’s a continuation of China trying to walk its relatively thin line with Russia and to make sure that it continues to help Russia as much as it can without infringing on its interests.”
So far, Beijing has carefully avoided actions that would violate Western sanctions, such as providing direct military aid to Moscow. But it has offered a lifeline to Russia’s battered economy by increasing its fuel and energy purchases at bargain prices. China’s August imports of Russian coal rose 57% year-on-year to a five-year high; its crude oil imports also rose 28% from a year earlier.
After Putin called for army reservists to join the war in Ukraine, Beijing has walked a fine line, reiterating its long-standing stance on dialogue to resolve the conflict.
“We call on relevant parties to achieve a ceasefire through dialogue and negotiation, and to find a solution to accommodate the legitimate security concerns of all parties as soon as possible,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said on Wednesday.
Also on Wednesday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York.
According to China’s reading, Wang stressed that China will continue to “maintain its objective and impartial position” and “promote peace negotiations” on the Ukraine issue.
But this “impartial position” was broadcast on the evening news of China’s state broadcaster CCTV, the most-watched news program in China.
After a brief report on Putin’s “partial mobilization”, without any mention of the protests in Russia or international condemnation, the program quoted an international observer as blaming the US for “continuing to stoke the conflict between Russia and Ukraine”.
“The conflict between Russia and Ukraine should be resolved through dialogue. But the US continues to supply Ukraine with weapons, which makes ending the conflict impossible and worsens the situation,” said a former Timor-Leste national defense adviser.
“Sanctions caused by the conflict have reverberations all over the world… Oil prices in East Timor have also gone up a lot. We are also suffering the consequences.”
A major factor driving the strategic alignment between Russia and China is the perception of threats from the United States, Hart told CSIS.
“As long as that variable continues, as long as Beijing continues to worry about the U.S., I think ties with Russia will continue to strengthen.”