As Russia raises the nuclear spectrum in Ukraine, China looks the other way

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When Russian President Vladimir Putin met with Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Uzbekistan last week, the atmosphere was noticeably different from their triumphant meeting in Beijing, weeks before the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

There was no more propaganda than their “limitless” friendship declared on the opening day of the Winter Olympics. Instead, Putin admitted that Beijing had “questions and concerns” about its faltering invasion, in a subtle nod to the limits of China’s support and the growing asymmetry in their relations.

In the Chinese reading of the meeting, Xi did not even refer to the much-heralded “strategic partnership” between Beijing and Moscow, noted Shi Yinhong, professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing. It was “the most conservative or most discreet statement in recent years” made by Xi about their strategic relationship, Shi said.

The change of tone is not surprising given Russia’s series of humiliating defeats on the battlefield, which exposed Putin’s weakness to his friends and foes alike. Those setbacks also come at a bad time for Xi, who is just weeks away from seeking a third term that breaks the rules in a key political meeting.

Under Xi, China forged ever closer ties with Russia. Already faced with internal problems due to the economic slowdown and his relentless zero-Covid policy, Xi needed a projection of strength, not vulnerability, in his personally supported strategic alliance.

Six days later, in a desperate escalation of the devastating war, Putin announced a “partial mobilization” of Russian citizens in a televised speech and even raised the specter of the use of nuclear weapons.

It is unknown whether Putin discussed his planned escalation with Xi during their latest talks, as well as whether Putin told Xi about his planned invasion the last time they met in Beijing remains an open question.

For some Chinese analysts, Putin’s setbacks and escalation of the war offered China an opportunity to move away from Russia, a subtle change that began with Xi’s meeting with Putin.

“China has no choice but (to) stay a little further away from Putin due to its escalation of the war, its aggression and annexation and its renewed threat of nuclear war,” Shi told Renmin University. .

“China did not want this indifferent friend to fight (him). What might be his fate on the battlefield is by no means a manageable deal for China. ”

But others are more skeptical. Putin’s open admission of Beijing’s perplexities does not necessarily signal a rift between the two diplomatic allies; Instead, it could be a way for China to gain diplomatic leeway, especially considering how its tacit support for Russia has damaged Beijing’s image in Europe, Theresa Fallon, director of the Center for Russia Europe Asia Studies, said. Brussels.

“My impression was that Beijing only wanted a small sliver of daylight between China and Russia, but I think many have over-interpreted it,” he said. “I think it was more for a European audience”.

“For China’s long-term interests, they have to keep Russia on board,” Fallon added.

The two authoritarian powers are strategically aligned in their attempt to counterbalance the West. Both leaders share deep suspicion and hostility towards the United States, which they believe is bent on keeping China and Russia in check. They also share the vision of a new world order, which better suits the interests of their nations and is no longer dominated by the West.

Days after Xi and Putin’s meeting, Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev and Chinese senior diplomat Yang Jiechi held security talks in the southern Chinese province of Fujian, vowing to “implement the consensus” reached by their leaders. , deepen their strategic coordination and 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’ve seen a major schism open between Russia and China,” said Brian Hart, a colleague of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“I see this as a continuation of China’s attempt to walk its rather fine line on Russia and make sure it continues to support Russia to the extent it can without violating its own interests.”

So far, Beijing has carefully avoided actions that would violate Western sanctions, such as providing direct military aid to Moscow. But it represented a lifeline for the battered Russian economy by increasing purchases of fuel and energy, at a bargain price. Chinese imports of Russian coal in August increased by 57% compared to the same period last year, hitting the highest for the last five years; its crude oil imports also increased by 28% over the previous year.

After Putin called in army reservists to join the war in Ukraine, Beijing continued to walk the fine line, reiterating its long-standing position for dialogue to resolve the conflict.

When asked about Russia’s possible use of nuclear weapons at a press conference on Wednesday, a spokesperson for the Chinese foreign ministry bypassed the question.

“China’s stance on the Ukrainian crisis has been consistent and clear,” spokesman Wang Wenbin said. “We call on the parties concerned to reach a ceasefire through dialogue and negotiation and to find a solution that satisfies the legitimate security concerns of all parties as soon as possible.”

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 the Chinese reading, Wang stressed that China will continue to “maintain its objective and impartial position” and “push for peace negotiations” on the question of Ukraine.

But that “impartial position” was revealed on the prime-time news of the Chinese state broadcaster CCTV, the most watched news in China.

After a subsequent report on Putin’s “partial mobilization” – with no mention of protests in Russia or international condemnations, the program quoted an international observer blaming the US for “continuing to fuel the conflict between Russia and Ukraine” .

“The conflict between Russia and Ukraine should be resolved through dialogue. But the US continues to supply arms to Ukraine, which makes it impossible to end the conflict and worsens the situation, “said a former national defense adviser in Timor-Leste.

“The sanctions triggered by the conflict have repercussions around the world… Oil prices in East Timor have also risen a lot. We too are suffering the consequences ”.

The comments are in line with the Russian narrative that Chinese officials and state media have been busy promoting in recent months – that the US has instigated war by expanding NATO to Russia’s doorstep, forcing Moscow into a corner.

The main factor driving the strategic alignment between Russia and China is the perception of threats emanating from the United States, Hart said with CSIS.

“As long as this variable remains constant, as long as Beijing continues to worry about the United States, I think it will continue to strengthen ties with Russia,” he said.