As Russia waves nuclear specter in Ukraine, China looks the other way

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Editor’s note: A version of this story appeared in CNN’s news bulletin Meanwhile in China, a tri-weekly update exploring what you need to know about the country’s rise and its impact on the world. Register here.



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When Russian President Vladimir Putin met Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Uzbekistan last week, the mood was markedly different from their triumphant meeting in Beijing, weeks before Russia invaded Ukraine.

There was no more bragging of their “no limits” friendship declared on the opening day of the Winter Olympics. Instead, Putin conceded that Beijing had “questions and concerns” about its failing invasion, in a subtle nod to the limits of China’s support and the growing asymmetry in their relationship.

In the Chinese reading of the meeting, Xi did not even refer to the much-heralded “strategic partnership” between Beijing and Moscow, observed Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing. It was “the most cautious or low-key statement in years” issued by Xi on their strategic relationship, Shi said.

The change in tone is not surprising given Russia’s series of humiliating defeats on the battlefield, which exposed Putin’s weakness to friend and foe alike. The setbacks also come at a bad time for Xi, who is just weeks away from seeking an outsized third term in a key political meeting.

Under Xi, China has forged increasingly close ties with Russia. Already facing the domestic woes of a slowing economy and his relentless zero Covid policy, Xi needed a projection of strength, not vulnerability, in his personally sanctioned strategic alliance.

Six days later, in a desperate escalation of the devastating war, Putin announced a “partial mobilization” of Russian citizens in a televised speech, and even raised the specter of the use of nuclear weapons.

It is unclear whether Putin discussed his planned escalation with Xi during their last talks, just as the question remains open whether Putin informed Xi of his planned invasion the last time they met in Beijing.

For some Chinese analysts, Putin’s setbacks and escalating war have presented China with an opportunity to distance itself from Russia – a subtle shift that began with Xi’s meeting with Putin.

“China has no choice but (to) stay a little further away from Putin due to its escalation of war, aggression and annexation, and its renewed threat of nuclear war,” he said. said Shi from Renmin University.

“China did not want this careless friend (to fight). What may be his fate on the battlefield is not at all manageable by China.

But others are more skeptical. Putin’s open admission of Beijing’s apprehensions does not necessarily signal a rift between the two diplomatic allies; instead, it could be a way for China to gain diplomatic leeway, especially given how its tacit support for Russia has damaged Beijing’s image in Europe, Theresa Fallon said. , Director of the Russia Europe Asia Center for Studies in Brussels.

“My impression was that Beijing just wanted a little sliver of daylight between China and Russia, but I think many overinterpreted that,” she said. “I think it was more for a European audience.”

“For China’s long-term interests, they have to keep Russia on board,” Fallon added.

The two authoritarian powers are strategically aligned in their attempt to counterbalance the West. Both leaders share a deep suspicion and hostility towards the United States, which they believe is determined to keep China and Russia down. They also share a vision of a new world order – one that better serves the interests of their nations and is no longer dominated by the West.

Days after the meeting between Xi and Putin, Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev and senior Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi held security talks in southern China’s Fujian province, pledging to “implement the consensus” reached by their leaders, deepen their strategic coordination and pursue military cooperation.

The two countries are also looking to deepen their economic relationship, with bilateral trade expected to reach $200 billion “in the near future”, according to Putin.

“I don’t think we’ve seen a major schism open up between Russia and China,” said Brian Hart, a fellow with the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“I see this as a continuation of China trying to walk its pretty thin line on Russia and making sure it continues to support Russia as much as it can without hurting its own interests.”

So far, Beijing has carefully avoided actions that would violate Western sanctions, such as providing direct military aid to Moscow. But it has presented a lifeline for Russia’s battered economy by stepping up purchases of its fuel and power – at a bargain price. Chinese imports of Russian coal in August were up 57% from the same period last year, hitting a five-year high; its crude oil imports also jumped 28% from a year earlier.

After Putin called on army reservists to join the war in Ukraine, Beijing continued to walk the fine line, reiterating its longstanding stance in favor of dialogue to resolve the conflict.

“We call on the parties concerned to reach a ceasefire through dialogue and negotiation, and to find a solution that addresses the legitimate security concerns of all parties as soon as possible,” the spokesperson said on Wednesday. of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Wang Wenbin, during a press briefing.

Also on Wednesday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

According to the Chinese reading, Wang stressed that China will continue to “maintain its objective and impartial position” and “push forward peace negotiations” on the Ukraine issue.

But this “unbiased stance” was revealed in the evening newscast on China’s state broadcaster CCTV, China’s most-watched news program.

After a terse report on Putin’s “partial mobilization” – with no mention of protests in Russia or international condemnations, the program quoted an international observer bluntly accusing the United States of “continuing to inflame the conflict between Russia and the ‘Ukraine’.

“The conflict between Russia and Ukraine must be resolved through dialogue. But the United States continues to supply arms to Ukraine, which makes it impossible to end the conflict and worsens the situation,” said a former national defense adviser in Timor-Leste.

“The sanctions triggered by the conflict are having repercussions around the world… Oil prices in Timor-Leste have also increased significantly. We too suffer the consequences. »

The main factor driving the strategic alignment between Russia and China is US threat perceptions, CSIS’s Hart said.

“As long as this variable remains constant, as long as Beijing continues to worry about the United States, I think it will continue to strengthen its ties with Russia.”

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