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Beijing’s Lean Into Moscow

Despite Putin’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, Xi continues to embrace a self-interested partnership with Russia.

Published on March 20, 2023

Fifteen years ago, as deputy assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia, I watched Beijing’s ambivalent response to Moscow’s dry run for its current war in Ukraine. When Moscow invaded Georgia in 2008 and detached two regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, it attempted to rally support from China and Central Asian members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. But then president Dmitri Medvedev had little success—not least because the precedent of hiving off parts of sovereign states risked, from Beijing’s perspective, undercutting its claim to be “sovereign” over Taiwan. 

Fast forward to 2023. On Monday morning, Chinese President Xi Jinping arrived in Moscow at a different time and in a different world. Strategically, Beijing is preoccupied with the United States, which Xi has publicly alleged aims to “contain, surround and block, and suppress” (遏制, 围堵, 打压) China. In this context, Russia is not the only country that shares Beijing’s ambivalence about American foreign policy and Washington’s frequent use of economic levers, but it is the only sizeable one. On numerous issues, from data sovereignty to the use of unilateral sanctions, Beijing and Moscow are broadly in agreement and seek to alter elements of the international system. Therefore, despite Moscow’s brutal invasion of Ukraine and claimed “annexation” of four Ukrainian regions over the past year, Beijing has leaned into its partnership with Russia, which Xi, in a piece published Monday in Russian-language media, describes as anchored by a “vision of lasting friendship.”

So, despite a recent Chinese position paper that seeks to present Beijing as a prospective arbiter of peace in Ukraine, no one should expect Xi to impose conditions on President Vladimir Putin or Russia. Nor should anyone expect a substantive diplomatic initiative with new points beyond the positions that Beijing has offered to date. These positions are, broadly speaking, friendly to Moscow’s view, which is precisely why Putin unsurprisingly told Xi at a meeting on Monday in the Kremlin that he would be “happy to discuss” them. 

To be sure, Beijing is working hard to create a perception of balance. But in doing so, it is playing primarily to a few audiences while ignoring the United States: Ukraine, Russia, the Global South, and, to a much lesser extent, Europe.

First, Ukraine. Beijing has teased that Xi will soon place a phone call to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. If he does so, it will be the first time Xi will have bothered to attempt to talk to him for the entirety of the war. And if Beijing were truly interested in brokering a peace, it would have put at least an iota of effort into its relationship with Kyiv over the past thirteen months.

So why call Zelenskyy? Putting Ukraine’s perspectives to the side, it is, from Beijing’s vantage point, in part a way to maintain the reputational illusion of balance—and to reap the strategic and diplomatic benefits of that with third parties around the world, especially in the Global South.

Beijing probably bets that it has some running room with Kyiv, which has been reluctant, not surprisingly, to bluntly criticize China over the past year. Beijing may calculate that Kyiv may someday look to Chinese capital for reconstruction assistance, given the scope and scale of the required rebuild.

More important, Beijing is playing to the many countries around the world, from Southeast Asia to Latin America, that are less invested in the outcome of the war in Ukraine. These audiences cluster in the Global South, which has proven to be fertile ground for Chinese diplomacy. Beijing may bet that these countries will openly express reassurance that China is a “productive” player in brokering an end to the war. Indeed, many of them have welcomed the Chinese position paper and may even praise Beijing for its efforts. Just take President Lula da Silva in Brazil as an example: he has called for China to become more involved in brokering peace and has floated his own plan that includes a role for China.

Then there is Europe, with which Beijing had hoped to improve relations in 2023, in part to backfoot Washington’s efforts. The Chinese can have no illusions about how badly they are faring now in Europe: Beijing will not abandon Moscow, and Moscow will not abandon its war in Ukraine, so Putin’s war is an albatross around Beijing’s neck with European capitals. But not everyone in Europe has criticized the Chinese position paper, despite sharp critiques from European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. So long as there are Europeans, such as French President Emmanuel Macron, who themselves nurture hopes to mediate a peace, even the tiniest Chinese fig leaf with Ukraine can hardly hurt with Europe, even if it does not help perceptions or relations very much.

As for Russia, the Chinese are surely betting that Putin will welcome Beijing’s outreach to Kyiv. In fact, Wang Yi, the director of the Communist Party’s central foreign affairs commission, likely precooked China’s outreach plan with Russia’s Security Council secretary Nikolai Patrushev when they met in Moscow on February 22. Putin has no reason to doubt Chinese support for him or his regime at the strategic level, even if there are differences at the tactical and operational level. Prospective Chinese outreach to Ukraine does nothing to make Putin worry that he is at risk of losing his key partner. Instead, it potentially helps him to the extent that it bolsters Chinese credibility around the world and gives China greater space to lawyer his case.

Finally, Beijing will likely ignore American sniping, such as the comments this week from White House spokesperson John Kirby dismissing China’s effort to present itself as a potential peacemaker, especially, he implied, a possible Chinese call for a “ceasefire” that would freeze and thus solidify Russian gains on the battlefield. Beijing will have already concluded that Washington will dismiss any Chinese diplomatic activity as performative—a kind of Peking opera. But the Americans are not China’s audience, so Beijing likely does not much care what Washington thinks. Instead, they will be calculating that Washington will not only give them zero credit for whatever they do but will probably try to rally Europe against them. (This was a widespread—and unfair, in my view—Chinese perception of what happened at the Munich Security Conference last month, when Secretary of State Antony Blinken publicly criticized China and preemptively warned it for apparently weighing lethal support for Moscow.) Beijing is playing not to the United States but to Ukraine, Russia, and especially the rest of the world.

As Xi’s public remarks about Washington make clear, Beijing’s principal focus in the world today—and its perception of its principal strategic problem—is the United States. China’s Communist leaders argue internally and publicly that the United States is the only country in the world that actively aims and has the capability to frustrate China’s interests—security, developmental, technological, and political. For that purpose, a constructive relationship with Moscow, which shares China’s skepticism of nearly every aspect of American foreign policy, is necessary.

Of course, partnership with Putin’s Russia is not cost-free, since Beijing pays a price reputationally, with Europe in particular. But partnership with the albatross in Moscow will pay dividends for China, too. After all, Beijing will hardly come away from Xi’s visit empty-handed for having enabled Putin. It will win contracts, assure Russia’s enduring economic dependence on China, and link the two countries’ resource producing and consuming sectors more closely together.