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

There was no further mention of their “no-limits” friendship declared on the opening day of the Winter Olympics. Instead, Putin admitted Beijing had “questions and concerns” about his faltering invasion, in a subtle nod to the limits of China’s support and the growing asymmetry in their relationship.

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

The shift in tone is not surprising given Russia’s string of humiliating defeats on the battlefield, which has exposed Putin’s weakness to his friends and foes. Those setbacks also come at a bad time for Xi, who is just weeks away from seeking a landmark third term at a key political gathering.

Under Xi, China has forged ever closer ties with Russia. Already faced with domestic woes from a slowing economy and his ongoing zero-Covid policy, Xi needed a projection of strength, not vulnerability, in his personally endorsed strategic alliance.

Six days later, in a desperate escalation of the devastating war, Putin announced a “partial mobilization” of Russian citizens in a televised address, even raising the specter of using nuclear weapons.

It is not known whether Putin discussed his planned escalation with Xi during their latest talks, just as it remains an open question whether Putin had told Xi about his planned invasion the last time they met in Beijing.

For some Chinese analysts, Putin’s setbacks and escalation of the war offer China an opportunity to tilt away 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 because of his war escalation, his aggression and annexation, and his renewed threat of nuclear war,” Shi said with Renmin University.

“China did not want this unheeding friend (to) fight. What could be his fate in the battlefield is not a business managed entirely by China.”

But others are more skeptical. Putin’s open admission of Beijing’s grievances does not necessarily spell a rift between the two diplomatic allies; instead, it can be a way for China to get some diplomatic wiggle room, especially considering how its tacit support for Russia has damaged Beijing’s image in Europe, said Theresa Fallon, director of the Center for Russia Europe Asia Studies in Brussels.

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

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

The two authoritarian powers are strategically aligned in their attempts to counterbalance the West. Both leaders share a deep suspicion and hostility toward the United States, which they believe is bent on containing China and Russia. They also share a vision for a new world order – one that better accommodates the interests of their peoples and is no longer dominated by the West.
Days after the meeting between Xi and Putin, Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev and China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi held security talks in the southern Chinese province of Fujian, folding to “implement the consensus” reached by their leaders, their strategic to deepen coordination and further military cooperation.

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

“I don’t think we saw a big schism open 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 fine thin line on Russia and make sure it continues to support Russia as much as it can without infringing on 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 to the battered Russian economy by lifting purchases of its fuel and energy – at a bargain price. China’s imports of Russian coal in August rose by 57% from the same period last year, reaching a five-year high; its crude oil imports also rose by 28% compared to a year earlier.

After Putin called up army reservists to join the war in Ukraine, Beijing has continued to walk the fine line, reiterating its long-held stance on dialogue to resolve the conflict.

“We call on the relevant parties to reach a ceasefire through dialogue and negotiation, and find a solution that meets the legitimate security concerns of all parties as soon as possible,” said Wang Wenbin, spokesman for China’s foreign ministry. , at a news briefing on Wednesday.

Also on Wednesday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met 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 would “maintain its objective and impartial position” and “push for peace negotiations” on the Ukraine issue.

But that “impartial position” was given away in the prime evening news broadcast on Chinese state broadcaster CCTV, the most-watched news program in China.

After a brief report on Putin’s “shared mobilization” – without mentioning the protests in Russia or international condemnations, the program cited an international observer who placed the blame squarely on the US for “continuing to conflict between Russia and Ukraine.”

“The conflict between Russia and Ukraine should be resolved through dialogues. But the US continues to supply Ukraine with weapons, which makes it impossible to end the conflict, and worsens the situation,” a former national defense adviser in Timor-Leste was shown as so to speak.

“The sanctions created by the conflict have consequences all over the world… The oil prices in Timor-Leste have also gone up a lot. We are also suffering from the consequences.”

The comments are consistent with the Russian narrative that Chinese officials and state media have been busy promoting in recent months – that the US is instigating the war by expanding NATO to Russia’s doorstep, forcing Moscow into a corner .

The main factor driving the strategic alignment between Russia and China is the perception of threats from the United States, said Hart with CSIS.

“As long as that variable remains constant, as long as Beijing continues to be concerned about the United States, I think it will continue to strengthen ties with Russia,” he said.