Snap Insight: Did Xi Jinping get what he wanted from Vladimir Putin in Russia visit?
Chinese President Xi Jinping can position himself as a peacemaker after state visit to Russia. It fits into Xi’s ambitions for his legacy, says political observer Bo Zhiyue.
WELLINGTON: All eyes have been on Chinese President Xi Jinping’s high-stakes visit to Moscow, just days after Russian President Vladimir Putin became an alleged war criminal with a warrant issued by the International Criminal Court at the Hague.
On Tuesday (Mar 21), Xi and Putin signed a joint declaration deepening the China-Russia partnership, more than a year after they proclaimed “no limits” to that relationship in Beijing before Putin launched his “special military operation” in Ukraine.
But what does Xi really want from Putin and more importantly, did Xi get what he wanted?
Much attention around Xi’s visit, of course, has been on Ukraine, with Western concerns that China might support Russia militarily.
China has been walking a political tightrope given its long-held principle of respecting national sovereignty. Xi has not openly supported Putin’s war, with China taking a more neutral position than what Putin might have expected from a “no limits” friend. But neither has China condemned the war, having abstained from several rounds of voting at the United Nations.
On Tuesday, Putin said that China’s proposed peace plan, released in February, could be “taken as the basis for a peaceful settlement”.
Xi can position himself as a peacemaker, especially if he can secure a call with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy but he doesn’t even have to make progress on peace. The point is to position China as a peacemaker and the United States as a warmonger supplying Ukraine with weapons.
A NEW RUSSIAN GAS PIPELINE
Economic ties between China and Russia will also be strengthened, with a joint statement on a plan to develop economic cooperation until 2030.
On Tuesday, Putin also said that agreement on the new Power of Siberia 2 pipeline to route Russian gas to China had “practically” been finalised. This would provide Putin a major customer to replace Europe and help Xi feed China’s growing energy needs to power its economy.
The two countries expanded their bilateral trade to a record US$190 billion in 2022, though this was only 3 per cent of China’s total trade that year.
The two countries have continued their security cooperation. The Chinese military participated in Russia’s “Vostok” (East) exercise in September 2022. China also joined Russia and Iran for naval drills in the Gulf of Oman in the “Security Bond-2023” exercise.
XI JINPING’S LEGACY
One has to wonder how all this fits into the legacy of Xi Jinping, already named party chairman and president for an unprecedented third term and his ideology enshrined in the constitution.
Xi has ambitions to become a greater leader than his predecessors. Mao Zedong was the founding father of the People’s Republic of China, Deng Xiaoping secured the return of Hong Kong, and Jiang Zemin oversaw the return of Macao.
How much emphasis might Xi place on Taiwan and the complete unification of China to achieve his ambition? Positioning himself as a global peacemaker while boosting economic and energy resources could well serve Xi’s ambitions, though it is not clear if he is prepared for military confrontation in the next five years.
What Xi wants from Putin is possibly “no limits” support. But how much support Putin can provide would have to be rather limited as his prospect for winning the war against Ukraine gets increasingly slimmer - Putin might become a liability rather than an asset in the foreseeable future.
Professor Bo Zhiyue is founder and president of the Bo Zhiyue China Institute, a consulting firm providing services to government leaders and CEOs of multinational corporations, and an author on China’s elite politics.