Recently, Xi Jinping, the leader of China, and Vladimir Putin, leader of Russia, met at the Kremlin in Russia to participate in talks of their strategic vision for the future. This visit comes amid the still ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine and raises eyebrows for state leaders around the world watching closely as relationships between China and Russia grow tighter. The meeting was advertised as a way for the “self-described friends” to show their personal support for each other.
To better understand the importance of the recent meeting between the two countries, one must first understand the changing relationship between Russia and China. Since the Russia-Ukraine conflict started, diplomats around the world have been watching this Russian-Chinese relationship closely. This was President Xi’s first diplomatic visit of his third presidential term, showing his commitment to building a relationship with Russia and putting this relationship at the forefront of his foreign policy. With the western imposal of sanctions on Russia, many expected their economy to falter. However, China has risen as Russia’s number one trading partner and is now a top buyer of Russian gas and oil. Other sanctions meant to limit Russia’s access to technology was largely overcome by China’s decision to send more technology to Russia instead. The growing trade between China and Russia is a change in historic relations between the two given their history of conflict, cultural differences, and competing economies, but the two countries seem to have put aside these differences in recent years. Finally, President Xi is the first international leader to welcome President Putin following the International Criminal Court’s warrant for Putin’s arrest, showing a blatant disregard for the legitimacy of the ICC and demonstrating that he favors Russia’s relationship over his relationship with the ICC.
The recent meeting was described by China and Russia as simply a way to build their relationship after years of growing friendship. However, many leaders looked on the meeting expecting some kind of talks about the war in Ukraine. Since the conflict started, China has claimed neutrality and expressed a desire to be seen instead as an advocate for peace. However, China called this trip a “key proponent” for helping solve the Ukraine conflict. After the meeting concluded, summaries of the event showed that there was little to no mention of the Ukraine conflict. The only thing that was mentioned was a continuation of what China has already proposed in their formerly released peace proposal, which calls for continued nuclear safety, providing support for the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine, protecting civilians, and upholding Ukraine’s sovereignty. Missing from this peace proposal are plans on how Russian forces will withdraw and work to end the actual conflict, making China’s efforts seem less than genuine. Additionally, this proposal largely echoes exactly what Russia has said in their own proposals on the Ukraine conflict, further reinforcing the idea that China’s neutrality is not genuine and they desire to work with Russia.
The main takeaway from the meeting between Putin and Xi was their joint criticism of the west. Both accused Washington of “undermining global stability” and condemned NATO for encroaching in the Asia-Pacific region, which Russia and China have typically claimed as their sphere of influence. Putin and Xi also talked about building a world that better suits their autocratic form of government and called for the promotion of a multipolar world in which multiple states had influence over world politics. The meeting ended with more than a dozen agreements between the two countries meant to build more cooperation in trade, technology, and general relationships. Xi has also pressured Russia to use the yuan and not the ruble in their trade with the global south in order to diminish the power of the U.S. dollar within world trade. Additionally, Putin relayed his confidence in Russia’s ability to overcome the “harsh” Western sanctions with China’s help, further strengthening the relationship between the two. Xi has also said he supports and endorses Putin’s presidential run in 2024 despite no mention yet from Putin about whether or not he will run.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has expressed concern over the growing relationship between Russia and China, repeatedly saying that “China’s diplomatic and political support for Russia goes against Washington’s interest”. He is especially worried about the potential of China supplying lethal weapons to Russia. What does this meeting mean for U.S. foreign policy as well as the conflict in Ukraine?
First, it seems as though the current state of the Russia-Ukraine war benefits China more than the end of the conflict will benefit them. Their attempts to be seen as an international peacekeeper should be viewed behind the lens of all they stand to gain by never actually interfering in the war. Russian aggression distracts the western countries and most especially U.S. attention in the Indo-Pacific area of the world. This gives China much more power and ability to fulfill their own goals in the region without worrying about competition. Additionally, the sanctions put in place by the U.S. and others cause Russia to turn more to China for imports and exports, helping boost China’s economy even more without competition from the west. The competition between Russia and the U.S. also gives China a chance to “catch up” from thousands of years of being politically and economically inferior to these two superpowers. China deciding to act as a “middle man” between Russia and the western world gives them the moral high ground to influence relationships between both areas of the world, while continuing to benefit both economically and politically. Because of this favorable position China is in, it is unlikely that they will risk the entry of western military into the conflict by sending lethal weapons to Russia.
The relationship between China and Russia is certainly surprising given their history, but has only continued to grow in the past year as they unite against the West to work together to create a more favorable political environment for their own goals. The continuation of the Russia-Ukraine conflict will only help to build this new relationship, and the U.S. must begin to think about what the Russia-China relationship will mean for future foreign policy in the region.