Xi's Visit to Moscow and a Conversation With Zelenskyy: Who is Beijing playing for?

Ihor Petrenko

12 mins - 10 de Abril de 2023, 07:00

Chinese leader Xi Jinping visited Russia. A lot of attention is drawn to this event both in Ukraine and in the world. There are also many interpretations of the meaning of this visit for different parties. Some people believe that this is an unconditional manifestation of Beijing’s support for Moscow, some think that it is the way China is raising the stakes in negotiations with the West, and some parties assume that Xi simply came to the 'sale' of Russian resources, which Putin arranged due to sanctions and after losing the energy war with the EU. What does this visit really mean and what consequences will it have for Russia’s war in Ukraine?

Let’s consider this visit from the perspective of all stakeholders, their initial positions, expectations and outcomes.
China seeks to expand its geopolitical influence. Beijing feels a dissonance between its economic importance to the world and its political influence, which seems limited to it in the existing world system. Therefore, China is actively working in various regions and has some success. It resets relations with Arab countries, Israel, and also successfully mediates, for example, in the normalisation of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia. China is also very active in Africa and Latin America.

In the context of Russia’s war in Ukraine, China done not mind taking the position of a peacemaker, although Beijing uses this war, in particular its 'peace-making plan', primarily to voice positions that are important to it. For example, when China talks about 'respecting the sovereignty of all countries', it primarily means Taiwan, not Ukraine, or when it mentions 'rejecting the Cold War mentality', then this is a message to the West regarding their attitude towards China.

It is also important to consider China’s position on cooperation with the Russian Federation. First of all, the Russian Federation for Beijing is an excellent resource base, where you can get everything you need at a great discount. China understands the complexity of the situation, therefore it will squeeze as much as it can out of Moscow. The main thing for China is the fact of dependence, which Beijing will be strengthening. On the other hand, China is not interested in the collapse of Putin’s regime, which is clear and useful for them in terms of competition with the West. If there is no Russia, or rather Putin’s regime, then all the spears of the West will go exclusively against China. In general, Beijing likes to deal with dictators because they are not constrained by democratic procedures or public pressure. However, in supporting Putin’s regime, China is not ready to take significant risks, in particular, it does not want to be exposed to Western sanctions, so this support will be extremely cautious, most likely through 'third hands' (Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Belarus) and in small volumes, which is unlikely to be enough for the Russian Federation to get significantly stronger in the war with Ukraine. Currently, according to the information of the Western media, it is known that China, through Turkey and the UAE, allegedly supplied Russia with rifles (1,000 units), body armour, as well as drones and components for them estimated at USD 12 million.

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Therefore, China takes an absolutely pragmatic position in relation to Russia, it is not an ally of the Russian Federation, it is a cautious partner in areas of special interest to China, which has its own red lines in relations with Moscow. It is also worth noting that the Middle East is losing from Russia’s war against Ukraine, since it had an extremely bad effect on the movement of goods from China to Europe and some other regions, so Putin’s actions also irritate Xi, but the prospect of increasing Russia’s dependence on China will surely compensate for these losses.

Most likely, China will simply play the Kremlin’s card as a way to raise the stakes in the game with the West, but it will definitely not put all the eggs in one basket.

The Russian Federation
For Russia, Xi’s visit is the event of the year. Being in international isolation, Putin rarely gets the opportunity to talk face-to-face with really influential leaders. Therefore, his propaganda machine will speculate on this visit for a long time, telling that Russia is not isolated and that it has global 'allies' in fight against the collective West. At the same time, Putin will remain silent about the scale of the concessions he is making to Beijing. The 'blue dream' of the Russian dictator is to draw China into the war with Ukraine, or at least to get lethal weapons from Beijing. He definitely told Xi about the need to join forces in war with the West, but judging by the statements made after the meeting, dreams remained just dreams, and instead of the expected help, Putin simply increased his dependence on the Celestial Empire.

The West
The West, primarily the United States, followed Xi’s visit to Moscow quite closely. First of all, the West does not want China to actively help Russia, in particular by supplying weapons, as this will prolong the war in Ukraine. Moreover, the United States sent appropriate signals to China that it is ready to act in a situation of Beijing’s support for Moscow. In the US, there is domestic pressure from the opposition, which criticises the Democrats for not paying enough attention to the 'China problem'. That is why Biden signed the law on the declassification of information about the origin of the coronavirus, which can create a bad reputation for Beijing. In addition, I tend to believe that the ICC’s issuance of arrest warrants for Putin is also a signal of the undesirability of contacts with Putin, including on the part of China. Of course, this warrant is not politically motivated, today there are 16 thousand recorded crimes against children ordered by Putin. We are talking about the time when this information was made public.

Paradoxically, Biden’s administration, instead, would like to normalise relations with China. They even planned Blinken’s visit, but the Chinese intelligence balloon prevented this from happening. I think that China itself wants to normalise relations with the USA, but it does not want to appear weak in this process, so the path for manoeuvres is still narrowed. China wants geopolitical recognition, and Biden says that 'America is back!', and the communication between them should take place in this coordinate system. However, in any case, the direct supply of weapons to the Russian Federation will be responded to with sanctions that are extremely inappropriate for China.

Europe has always been more restrained in relation to China, but 'China’s playing on the side of the Kremlin' is a factor of irritation for the EU as well.

For Ukraine, China is the No. 1 trade partner, but despite this, the level of political relations with this country is quite low. For over two years, Ukraine has not even had an ambassador in this country, but this is certainly not the only factor affecting bilateral relations. The cooperation between Ukraine and China was more specific than systemic, and in fact was limited exclusively to economic cooperation. Undoubtedly, the main geopolitical partners of Kyiv are the USA, the EU and Britain, and Russia’s war against Ukraine proved this once again. Nonetheless, normal relations with Beijing are important for Kyiv. Zelenskyy does not consider China as an ally of Russia, he perfectly understands that for China no one is a friend, just as no one is an enemy. When it was beneficial, China was friends with the USA. It is also obvious that the interests of Kyiv and the West regarding the potential supply of weapons by China to Russia clearly coincide, this is a joint task for all parties.

President Zelenskyy was restrained in his assessment of the 'peace-making plan' from China. In particular, there is a provision with respect to which a dialogue between Kyiv and Beijing may be built – the need to respect sovereignty and territorial integrity. It is clear that this position is disadvantageous for Russia, but it suits China and Ukraine, albeit for different reasons, which means it can be worked with. Both China and Ukraine also talk about the need to develop a new concept of security, which means that it is also a point of contact. Xi talks a lot about international law and the need to observe international rules, and Ukraine also calls for this. But certainly the dynamics of its relations with the West will affect the relations between Ukraine and China, and this is an essential part of an already complex equation.

For now, Kyiv is looking forward to a conversation with the Chinese leader, which will obviously be of a general nature and with an emphasis on the importance of peace, compliance with international rules, etc., but will not yet have practical results, as there are no relevant prerequisites. However, this conversation will be important, as it will enable Zelenskyy to voice directly to President Xi his position, the Ukrainian vision of the situation, and possibly outline further directions for potential dialogue and cooperation on issues important to both countries.

Visit Outcomes
Given the statements made by Putin and Xi Jinping, the main beneficiary of the visit was China. First of all, Putin announced Russia’s readiness to switch to the yuan in foreign trade. Putin is unlikely to strengthen the rouble in this way. Secondly, Putin played along with Xi in propagating the idea of abandoning the Cold War mentality. The two leaders stated that the relations between their countries are not a military or political union, are not disrupting or confrontational, nor are they directed against third countries. Thirdly, Xi and Putin did not sign any serious documents, except for statements about plans to deepen the partnership and plans for economic cooperation. Fourthly, Putin pretended to agree with Xi on his peace-making plans, although this plan is already at odds with the interests of the Russian Federation from the very first clauses. Accordingly, at a joint press conference with the leader of the People’s Republic of China, Xi Jinping, Putin stated that China’s 'peace-making plan' for the war in Ukraine can be taken as a basis when the West and Ukraine are ready for it. Instead, the Chinese leader spoke in more general terms, such as the importance of friendship between China and the Russian Federation for the world, the need to comply with the UN Charter and achieve peace. In general, Xi was tight-lipped at the final press conference.
China’s position regarding Russia’s war in Ukraine will lean more towards neutrality rather than Moscow’s support, although it is difficult to call Beijing impartial, since it has little communication with Kyiv. Mediator and peacemaker is a role that China wants to take and it is part of its global ideology. Both Russia and Ukraine are partners for China. Moscow is a convenient resource base and a bargaining tool with the West for geopolitical influence. And Ukraine is part of China’s food security. In general, President Xi’s visit to Moscow was solely for the benefit of China and did not bring anything good for Russia, except for a topic for propagandists to talk about. As a result, China consolidated its dominance over the Russian Federation and to a certain extent, from its position, strengthened its image of a peace-making state as the antithesis of the West, which acts not from a belligerent, but from a constructive position. Therefore, there is no 'strategic alliance' between China and the Russian Federation. Russia for Beijing is one of the tools to promote its global ideology of China’s place in the world. It will be possible to talk about the prospects of relations between China and Ukraine after the start of the dialogue between the leaders of both countries.

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