Analysis: Putin’s ‘Chinese wishlist’ could turn out to be wishful thinking
Russian President Vladimir Putin invited his international “best friend”, the Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Moscow for a three-day state visit starting March 20. There will certainly be plenty of celebrations, champagne toasts, a big press conference and – behind closed doors – serious discussions.
For Xi, it’s a high-profile trip: his first state visit to any country since his appointment to an unprecedented third term. Kremlin officials said the two leaders will sign “important documents” that will “deepen relations” and strengthen economic cooperation. But for the two men, this trip is much more than just a chapter in what they both describe as a “limitless” friendship.
For Putin, it’s a welcome show of support from his biggest ally after a year of military failure to achieve his so-called goal of “denazification and demilitarization” of Ukraine. Putin’s army is burning military equipment, ammunition – and men. He has reached out to North Korea and Iran for weapons and drones, but getting more weapons, ammunition and maybe drones from China would be a big win for the Russian president. However, it might be a tough sell.
So far, Xi has helped Putin by sticking to a delicate balancing act: refusing to publicly condemn Putin’s war and accusing the West of “provoking” Russia, while strengthening economic ties, but refraining from providing “deadly” military aid to Moscow.
A CNN investigation found that a Chinese state-owned defense contractor was sending helicopter parts and air-to-ground radio equipment to Russia throughout 2022, but it doesn’t appear to match “weapons.” deadly”.
The United States says Beijing is “considering” providing military aid but, so far, the Biden administration says it has seen “no indication” that Chinese leaders have decided to continue.
As Putin seems determined to fight to the end in Ukraine, Xi arrives in Moscow to try to restore his image with a 12-point plan that would start with a ceasefire. China’s foreign ministry said the proposals “come down to one sentence, which is to urge peace and promote talks.”
The Kremlin says the plan deserves “special attention,” but President Joe Biden’s National Security Council spokesman John F. Kirby said the proposed ceasefire amounted to “ratification of the Russian conquest”, allowing Russian troops to remain in place, occupying parts of a sovereign country.
Xi is also making overtures to Ukraine, allowing the Chinese foreign minister to speak to his Ukrainian counterpart, calling for peace talks. Will Xi reach out to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky after his meeting with Putin?
Putin has other things on his Chinese wish list. Western sanctions cut off Moscow’s access to microchips and other sophisticated technologies crucial to Putin’s military-industrial complex; China is a major producer of these components. China, However, faces a dilemma: he officially opposes economic sanctions but – so far at least – tries not to violate them, fearing that Chinese companies themselves will end up being sanctioned.
The Russian leader wants more trade with China, and Beijing is thirsty for more Russian oil, but there is a downside for Putin. Europe has stopped importing Russian oil and most natural gas. Russia compensates for this by selling to India and China – but at discounted prices.
On Putin’s geopolitical wishlist, Xi has expressed solidarity with Putin, but he doesn’t seem entirely on board with Putin’s assault on Ukraine — at least publicly. Even as the Russian president has made multiple thinly veiled threats to use nuclear weapons, Xi warned against such actions. On the crucial issue of sovereignty, Beijing is performing another balancing act by not criticizing Russia’s violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty, while reaffirming that the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries must be respected. China is watching the war in Ukraine, taking notes and drawing conclusions about any future possibility that Beijing might invade Taiwan, and it’s complicated: insisting that China’s sovereignty be respected, while denying Taiwan’s claim to his.
Yet as Putin and Xi sit down for talks, they seem to wholeheartedly agree on one thing: Both want an end to the post-WWII “liberal world order” guaranteed by the UNITED STATES. Both want to challenge the military and economic hegemony of the United States. China would likely quietly welcome a Russian victory that would humiliate the Western allies of the United States and Ukraine.
But while Putin is a “true believer” in the demise of the West, Xi must surely be appalled by Russia’s failing military performance on the battlefield. The International Criminal Court’s arrest warrant against Putin for alleged war crimes is another worrying sign for strategic partners, even though neither Russia nor China recognizes the court’s jurisdiction. Russia’s damaged economy can never compensate for the loss of European and American markets that would likely ensue if China wholeheartedly sided with Russia.
Putin’s “Chinese wish list” may just be wishful thinking.