Business News/ Politics / What does Xi Jinping want from Vladimir Putin?

Ever since the second world war geopolitics have been moulded by the “strategic triangle" between China, Russia and America. Co-ordination between Mao Zedong and Josef Stalin in the early 1950s fuelled American determination to halt the spread of communism. That led to America fighting wars in Korea and Vietnam, its commitment to defend Taiwan, and multiple proxy conflicts elsewhere.

A decade later Mao’s schism with Nikita Khrushchev laid the ground for an American rapprochement with China. That brought covert Chinese assistance in the fight against Soviet forces in Afghanistan, which helped to end the cold war. It also underpinned the decades-long run of economic growth that has transformed China into a global power—and a geopolitical rival to America.

Now another shift of the triad looms. Xi Jinping, China’s leader, is due in Moscow on March 20th for a three-day visit: his first since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year. At the very least it will be an emphatic display of solidarity with Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president. It may be more, too: American officials believe Mr Xi is weighing Russia’s request to supply it with lethal weapons, including artillery shells and attack drones, for use in Ukraine. If Mr Xi agrees, it would draw China into a proxy war with NATO.

In China’s telling, Mr Xi heads to Moscow as a peacemaker, and with no offer of arms. He is likely to use his trip to repeat his call for an end to the war, and to promote a 12-point peace plan first proposed by China in February. Mr Xi will echo recent Chinese statements urging respect for all countries’ territorial integrity and opposing any use of—or talk of using—nuclear weapons.

As evidence of Mr Xi’s peacemaking credentials Chinese officials point to their country’s role in brokering an agreement on March 10th to re-establish diplomatic ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran. To offset Western criticism of his Moscow visit, Mr Xi is likely to follow it with virtual talks with Ukraine’s president, Volodymr Zelensky. It would be the pair’s first official exchange since Russia’s invasion. That will play well in many poor and middle-income countries, and among some Westerners keen for America to be less confrontational towards China.

Yet Mr Xi’s true intentions are hidden in plain sight. While professing neutrality, he still refuses to condemn Russia’s invasion or its soldiers’ atrocities. In Moscow he will almost certainly join Mr Putin in blaming the war, yet again, on the expansion of NATO. (Chinese officials and state media draw parallels with America’s bid to strengthen its alliances in Asia in preparation for a potential Chinese assault on Taiwan.) And even if Mr Xi stops short of sending Russia weapons, he will probably offer more non-military support to help sustain Mr Putin’s war. Although China largely avoids violating Western sanctions on Russia, it has not joined them. Indeed, it helps Russia offset their impact by buying more of its oil and gas, and selling it more electronics and other goods.

You call that a plan?

China’s peace plan, meanwhile, is a non-starter for Ukraine and its Western backers. It advocates an end to Western sanctions without requiring Russia to withdraw from Ukrainian territory. It sticks closely to Kremlin talking points in arguing that security “should not be pursued at the expense of others", nor by “strengthening or expanding military blocs". Such points echo Mr Xi’s “Global Security Initiative", which he proposed last year as an alternative to the American-led “rules-based international order" and will probably promote enthusiastically over the next few days.

Mr Xi’s stance unsettles some in China’s elite. It shreds the country’s claim to be pursuing a foreign policy rooted in respect for sovereignty, and undermines a guarantee it made in 2013 to help Ukraine if it were threatened with nuclear attack. It makes Chinese attempts to cleave Europe from America much harder. Chinese strategists are clear-eyed, too, about Russia’s unpredictable politics and dismal economic prospects. Arming it would expose China to severe sanctions from America and the European Union, its two biggest trading partners, hobbling efforts to revive its economy. Talk of a new cold war would harden into reality.

Yet Mr Xi’s calculations are dominated by his conviction that China is locked in a long-term confrontation with America that might lead to a war over Taiwan, which it claims as its territory. In that context Russia still represents an indispensable source of energy, military technology and diplomatic support. A Russian defeat in Ukraine would embolden America and its allies. If Mr Putin’s grip on power slipped, instability on China’s vast northern border with Russia could follow. Worst of all, it could usher into the Kremlin a pro-Western leader tempted to help America to contain Chinese power, in a mirror image of China’s own strategic shift in the 1970s.

“That is the nightmare for China," says Li Mingjiang, an expert on Chinese foreign policy at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. In Mr Xi’s eyes America represents the greatest potential threat, and China has no other big power on its side to help resist Western economic or military pressure. “Russia is the only option," he says. “It’s the same logic as in the cold war, when Mao saw the Soviet Union as China’s number-one enemy, and decided to pursue rapprochement with the United States."

Mr Xi’s strategic considerations are underpinned by a personal connection with Russia. His father, Xi Zhongxun, was a prominent revolutionary who later oversaw the Soviet experts who helped build up Chinese industry in the 1950s. As vice-premier, the elder Xi visited Moscow in 1959. He returned full of admiration, bearing Soviet-made toys that delighted his six-year-old son.

The younger Xi’s interest in Russia seems to have deepened during the seven years he spent in a remote village to which he was sent at the age of 15 in 1969, during the Cultural Revolution. The books he read are still displayed there, including “War and Peace", a selection of Lenin’s writings, an account of Soviet battles in the second world war and “How the Steel was Tempered", a socialist-realist novel about a man who fights the Germans, joins the Bolsheviks and becomes an ideal Soviet citizen.

Mr Xi was not alone in his regard for Russia. Senior Chinese military officers developed close ties with their Russian counterparts after Western governments placed arms embargoes on China over the crushing of pro-democracy protests around Tiananmen Square in 1989. (They remain in place.) Since then, China has bought tens of billions of dollars’ worth of Russian weapons. Attitudes towards America within China’s military leadership hardened after American warplanes bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999, during the Kosovo conflict. (America apologised, insisting it was a mistake.)

In the decade before Mr Xi took power in 2012, he also appears to have been influenced by leftist academics and fellow “princelings" (as offspring of Communist Party leaders are known) who became disillusioned with the West, especially after the financial crisis in 2007-09. Inspired by Mr Putin, then near the height of his power, they began to see Russia as a potential partner and to question Chinese historians’ conclusions that the Soviet Union collapsed owing to problems dating back to Stalin. Instead, they blamed Mikhail Gorbachev and his liberalising reforms.

By the time Mr Xi assumed office, he and his advisers were already bent on closer alignment with Russia. He chose Moscow for his first trip abroad, and hinted there that the two countries would work together against the West. “Our characters are alike," he told Mr Putin. Mr Xi has since met him some 39 times, far more than any other leader, apparently bonding over common disdain for democracy and fears of American encirclement.

Sneak attack

Some of the shine may have come off the pair’s relationship after Mr Putin’s scheming last year. In February 2022, just before Russia invaded Ukraine, he visited Mr Xi in Beijing for the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics, and the two sides declared that their partnership had “no limits". Whatever the pair discussed, Chinese officials appear to have been wrong-footed by the scale of the invasion: they had no prepared talking points or plans to evacuate Chinese citizens. Soon after the war began, China’s vice-foreign minister responsible for Russia was transferred to the radio and television administration.

Chinese perceptions of Russian military prowess have also changed since the war began. Russian successes in Crimea, Georgia and Syria had convinced Chinese generals that Mr Putin was a great strategist with an effective army. Drills between the two countries’ armed forces have focused on interoperability. Recent Chinese military reforms have replicated those in Russia. But Chinese commanders have been shocked by Mr Putin’s miscalculations over Ukraine and the lacklustre performance of Russian soldiers and weaponry.

Disillusion is not confined to military types. In December Feng Yujun, a prominent Russia expert at Fudan University, in Shanghai, made a scathing speech in which he noted that Russia had annexed millions of square miles of Chinese territory between 1860 and 1945. The Soviet Union then forced China to distance itself from the West and pushed it to enter the Korean war, in which “countless" Chinese troops were killed, he argued. Modern Russia, he went on, had not accepted its weakness relative to China and was obsessed with rebuilding its empire. “The weakest party in the China-America-Russia triangle always benefits the most," he concluded.

Such views are now common among Chinese scholars and business figures familiar with Russia. But their impact on decision-making is limited in a system that depends increasingly on the will of one man.

Late last year some Western officials expressed hope that China was starting to distance itself from Russia, especially after Mr Putin promised to address Chinese “questions and concerns" about the situation in Ukraine when he met Mr Xi in Uzbekistan in September. Those hopes grew stronger after Mr Xi and other senior Chinese officials, without explicitly mentioning Mr Putin’s nuclear sabre-rattling over Ukraine, voiced disapproval of any such threat or attack. The statements coincided with a diplomatic push by Mr Xi to repair some of the damage to China’s economy and international relations after its long self-imposed isolation to counter covid-19.

For a while, Mr Xi appeared keen to try to reduce tensions with America. That approach seemed to gain momentum when he met President Joe Biden in Bali in November. Both men said they would try to find areas of potential co-operation. But that attempt at detente ground to a halt in February after America shot down a high-altitude Chinese balloon that it said was part of a global surveillance operation. Chinese officials have been frustrated, too, by their lack of progress in undermining support for NATO within Europe.

Beyond the diplomatic to-ing and fro-ing there is little hard evidence that China is distancing itself from Russia. In 2022 Russian exports of crude oil and gas to China rose, in dollar terms, by 44% and more than 100% respectively. Chinese exports to Russia increased by 12.8%. China’s shipments of microchips—which are used in military as well as civilian kit, and which the West has tried to deny to Russia—more than doubled. Some Chinese companies have even provided items for direct military use, such as satellite images, jamming technology and parts for fighter jets—although only in small quantities. Some of these deals may pre-date the war, or involve entities already under American sanctions.

China has also continued to take part in joint military drills with Russia. In November Chinese and Russian strategic bombers flew on a joint patrol over the Sea of Japan and the East China Sea, and landed on each others’ airfields for the first time. On the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, Russian, Chinese and South African warships were exercising together in the Indian Ocean. And on March 15th Russia, China and Iran began joint naval drills in the Gulf of Oman.

Double or nothing

Rather than downgrade the relationship Mr Xi appears to be strengthening it, while exploiting Russia’s miscalculations in Ukraine to tilt the balance of power in his favour. It is easy to see why. Mr Xi has won access to discounted energy supplies. And he has almost certainly extracted an assurance that Mr Putin will back him diplomatically in a war over Taiwan.

He has also gained leverage to seek high-end Russian military technology, such as surface-to-air missile systems and nuclear reactors designed to power submarines—and to press Mr Putin to withhold or delay supplies of similar items to other Russian customers that have territorial disputes with China, such as India and Vietnam. Russia could also help upgrade China’s nuclear arsenal, or work on a joint missile-warning system.

In recent weeks Mr Xi appears to have doubled down. Two days before the anniversary of Russia’s invasion he sent Wang Yi, his top diplomat, to meet Mr Putin in Moscow. There, Mr Wang said China’s strategic partnership with Russia was “as firm as Mount Tai" and pledged to work with Russia to “strengthen strategic co-ordination, expand practical co-operation and defend the legitimate interests of both countries." One expected item on the agenda for Mr Xi’s visit will be Russia’s proposal to build a new gas pipeline to China that would divert supplies once earmarked for Europe.

Even as China extracts concessions its officials will be anxious to keep Mr Xi’s hands clean, especially after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Mr Putin on March 17th, accusing him of war crimes. Having been surprised once by the scale of Russia’s invasion, officials in Beijing will be keen to ensure that there is no big new offensive or egregious attack on civilians while their boss is in Moscow. Recalling Mr Biden’s surprise visit to Kyiv during Mr Wang’s trip to Moscow, they will also be wary of any American counter-moves.

Mr Xi’s proposed call with Mr Zelensky, long advocated by European and American officials, may improve the optics of his trip, especially if the Ukrainian leader makes positive noises about China’s peacemaking potential. But Mr Xi probably has little immediate interest in mediation. The Iran-Saudi deal was brewing for some time before China stepped in, and elsewhere its record as an intermediary is poor. The “six-party talks" it hosted for years over North Korea came to nothing. Likewise efforts to broker peace in Afghanistan and Myanmar. Chinese officials also calculate (correctly) that neither Russia nor Ukraine wants peace talks at the moment, as both believe they can make advances on the battlefield. Mr Xi’s peace posturing is thus more about burnishing his international image while undermining America’s, and positioning China to take advantage of whatever emerges from the war.

As for Russia’s request for lethal weapons, China is most likely undecided. America’s allegation that China is mulling sending arms may be more of a pre-emptive public warning than evidence of imminent action. Chinese officials deny any such plans exist. But China may see another opportunity to gain leverage. In public statements and private discussions its officials increasingly draw a link with America’s provision of weapons to Taiwan. “Why does the US ask China not to provide weapons to Russia while it keeps selling arms to Taiwan?" asked Qin Gang, China’s new foreign minister, at his debut news conference on March 7th.

If Mr Xi does decide to arm Russia, he may do so covertly. China has a long history of clandestine arms exports. In the 1980s it secretly supplied Chinese-made variants of the Soviet AK-47 assault rifle to CIA-backed mujahideen insurgents in Afghanistan. Providing Russia with artillery shells would be easy: Chinese arms-makers produce similar models and can remove markings, or add ones suggesting they originate elsewhere, says Dennis Wilder, a former CIA officer who used to track Chinese arms exports. China could also supply weaponry via third countries, like North Korea or Iran, or provide them with incentives to ship their own arms to Russia. America might detect such moves, but proving them will be harder. “All China needs is plausible deniability," says Mr Wilder.

But the quiet approach has limits. To truly alter the course of the war might require China to supply bigger, more sophisticated weapons, such as attack drones. Those would be harder to conceal, especially if any were to fall into Ukrainian hands. And public exposure would significantly undermine Mr Xi’s efforts to present himself as a peacemaker and to undermine relations between Europe and America.

In the end Mr Xi’s decision could depend on how the war plays out, and especially on the outcome of the expected Ukrainian counter-offensive in the coming months. It could hinge, too, on the level of tensions between China and America over Taiwan, suggests Alexander Korolev, who studies China-Russia relations at the University of New South Wales in Australia. “If, by sending weapons to Ukraine, China can control the level of escalation and keep Russia going for as long as needed, then it can keep the West busy," he says. “That makes it more feasible to deal with Taiwan."

© 2023, The Economist Newspaper Limited. All rights reserved. From The Economist, published under licence. The original content can be found on

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Updated: 20 Mar 2023, 09:53 AM IST
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