Is China about to turn on Russia? – article for UnHerd by Nathan Levine – 01.10.22
President Xi can't afford to isolate the West
After managing a strained smile and handshake for the cameras, President Xi Jinping walked away from Vladimir Putin with a face like stone. By most accounts, the recent meeting in Uzbekistan between the two leaders, who once spoke of each other as “best friends” and “bosom buddies,” was frosty. In a remarkable admission, Putin acknowledged that the Chinese leader had arrived with “questions and concerns” about the course of Russia’s war in Ukraine. Putin promised to better explain “our position on this issue, although we have talked about it before”.
Instead, Putin has decided to escalate further, announcing the mobilisation of 300,000 reservists in an effort to salvage Russia’s position as its forces flounder in the face of a sweeping Ukrainian counter-offensive. The mobilisation — along with accompanying threats to use nuclear weapons if Russian territory is endangered — is unlikely to have improved Xi’s mood. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin immediately called for a “ceasefire”.
Foreign Minister Wang Yi later pressed for mediation and “every effort to strive for peace” in the conflict, while China’s ambassador to the UN Zhang Jun urged de-escalation and “a political settlement as soon as possible”.
China’s frustration with Russia is clearly growing. The conflict has left Beijing in an exceptionally awkward position. A short, sharp war that toppled the pro-Western Ukrainian government — i.e. what Putin appears to have originally expected — would undoubtedly have been a big win for China, severely undermining the unity and influence of the Western liberal order that it also seeks to overturn.
It’s possible this was the bright future Xi was told to expect when, just before the war, Putin met him in February and the two leaders signed a joint statement declaring there were now “no limits” to the China-Russia partnership. Fast forward to today, however, and the protracted conflict, and the exposure of the Russian army’s simultaneous weakness and brutality, has turned into a serious headache for China.
Diplomatically, Beijing has attempted to straddle the fence on the war by supporting Russia rhetorically and morally even as it refrains from providing it with any of the material support Moscow has begged for with growing desperation. Russia has had to settle for shoddy, second-hand armaments from North Korea and Iran instead of the high-tech kit from China that it probably expected to receive.
Even Washington has, almost grudgingly, admitted that China has so far complied with its sanctions on Russia.
The distinctly materialist Marxist-Leninist Chinese Communist Party (CCP) probably assumed its response would be appreciated around the world. Instead, no one is happy: the West has reacted with moral outrage that China hasn’t openly denounced Russia, while the Russians doubtless privately seethe with a sense of betrayal, having discovered that “our Chinese friends are tough bargainers”, as Putin let slip.
Overall, the war is increasingly turning into a diplomatic disaster for Beijing, helping to drive perceptions of China to record lows around the world. In particular, it has shattered previously close ties with Europe. The European Union is now preparing a series of measures targeting forced labour and “economic coercion” that are likely to limit the EU-China trade relationship. Even the once reliably friendly — some might say naïve — Germans are now rapidly rethinking their tight economic relationship with China.
Nathan Levine is Assistant Director of the Asia Society Policy Institute’s Center for China Analysis.
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Xi doesn't have time for Putin's war (STR/AFP via Getty Images)