Xi-Putin Meeting Amidst China’s Ukraine Dilemma – Analysis

Much has been written about Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent three-day state visit to Russia from 20th to 22nd of March. Globally, the high-profile visit was interpreted as China’s drive for a new global order, as well as Russia’s willingness to play the “second fiddle” or “junior partner” in its relations with Beijing.

Indian strategists too expressed their concern over the Russia-China convergence of interests, which will invariably “squeeze India’s strategic space”. However, the aspect that has received comparatively lesser attention from the strategic community in India and beyond, is the evolving dynamics of China’s domestic discourse on Russia and the Ukraine crisis, particularly its complex dilemmas, inherent contradictions, and subtle nuances and how these shaped the recent Xi-Putin meeting.

China-Russia: Alliance but no alliance

On one hand, China officially stated that it is determined “to further deepen comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination with Russia for the new era”. The Joint Statement further highlighted the consensus between both the parties to “give each other firm support in safeguarding their respective core interests, first of all on issues of sovereignty, territorial integrity, security and development.”

Toeing the official line, China’s state media too heaped praises on China-Russia good neighbourliness, friendship, and cooperation, bragged about the personal rapport between Xi and Putin, and how that has transformed the ties into a new model/a new paradigm for China-proposed new type of international relations, a new type of major-country relations with the “highest degree of mutual trust, the highest level of strategic coordination, and the highest amount of strategic value.”

However, on the other hand, China’s strategic community remained particularly prickly about the issue of “binding together of Russia and China” at the global level, the trend of China-Russia being treated “as an organic whole” in the sense of geopolitics, and their deepening strategic coordination being labelled as “a de-facto military-political alliance”.

Such has been the Chinese paranoia over getting associated with Russia or being held accountable for Russian culpability at the Ukrainian battlefield and thereby being boycotted by the international community as China-Russia “axis of evil” or “alliance of autocracies”, that it seems to have dropped the “China-Russia no-limit friendship” rhetoric and launched a counter-offensive against, what it calls the West’s “slander or smear campaign” against China.

Some Chinese scholars even strove hard to disassociate the Ukraine conflictfrom the progress in China-Russia ties. The recently signed Joint Statement too made conscious efforts to clarify that the new Sino-Russian alignment is not like the military and political alliance during the Cold War, but transcends that model of state relations, and has the nature of “non-alignment, non-confrontation, and non-targeting of third countries”.

Prolong the war or make peace

Xi’s Russia visit has started a blame game of sorts between China and the United States (US) about who wants to prolong the war and who wants to make peace. As the Chinese government positioned Xi’s visit as “a trip for peace”, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned that the “world should not be fooled” by a Chinese-Russian peace plan for Ukraine that would “freeze in place territory seized by Russian forces”.

China, in turn, claimed that the Chinese President neither took side nor armed/encouraged one side to fight against the other but aimed to ease tension, promote peace talks, facilitate political settlement of the crisis, much in line with the recent China-brokered deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Meanwhile, it counter-accused the US of protracting the war, of having ulterior motive of fuelling the fire of conflict and exploiting the situation for selfish gain. It further argued that while China is making active efforts towards resolving the crisis through dialogue and negotiation, the US has been pouring in lethal weapons into the battlefield, constantly pushing uptensions and prolonging the conflict.

However, much in contrast to the war of words with the US at the official level, concerns are building up within China’s domestic circles regarding the long-term sustainability of the Russia-Ukraine war. Questions are being raised about the duration of US’s and the West’s commitment to a long war? How will factors like the economic situation in Europe and theUS, changes in energy supply and demand, the US party struggles, the China factor etc. impact the West’s commitment to the Ukrainian crisis going forward?

On the other hand, Chinese scholars also hint at the urgency being felt on the Russian side to end the war, before it starts affecting domestic politics and social stability. Chinese strategists seem particularly concerned about a potential flux in Russia’s domestic political situation that may provoke a coup d’état, , bring in a new leadership which is either more radical or closer to the West, thus, compromising Russia’s “anti-western” credentials in the face of Russia’s mounting internal, external difficulties. Either way, it will be detrimental to China’s national interest.

Overall, the Chinese assessment is that while the Russia-Ukraine conflict may continue to escalate in the short term, however, at the same time, the general global expectation for peace and the above-mentioned trends may present important opportunities for intervals and emerge as major turning points in the course of the conflict. Therefore, despite the strong public support in China for aiding Putin’s Russia overtly or covertly, and prolonging the conflict (since it is perceived as the single biggest distracting factor at present in the US’s as well as the larger West’s China policy. There are even jokes doing round in the Chinese internet mocking the US’ China policy, that reads like “Please help me contain Russia so that I can better contain you in the future.” Veteran Russia watchers warn the government not to overlook or go against the contrasting trends emerging out of the European crisis.

In the present scenario, they say, neither staying aloof nor publicly supporting one side is in China’s interest. If the situation deteriorates into a large-scale war or even a nuclear war, it will be catastrophic for every country. However, if the situation tends to decelerate, China must seize the opportunity to play a bigger role in this geopolitical game of global significance, proactively build China’s role as a peace broker and consciously exert its influence in the world, particularly in Europe. Meanwhile, by prioritising political peace talks over territorial negotiation, it can also provide an important lifeline to the Putin administration at this critical juncture.

Overall, on the Ukraine issue, China seems to be practising a delicate balancing act—It seeks an ally in Russia to advance a China-led world order, challenging the existing one led by Washington but also does not want to provoke the US and the EU too much on the Russia-Ukraine issue, so as to protect its economy from sanction risks and keep benefitting from its economic engagements with the West. It will be interesting to see if in the coming days China manages to have its cake and eat it too or gets called out by all three for its duplicity.