Vladimir Putin welcomed Wang Yi to Moscow with his arms open wide. For a moment, it looked like the Russian president might try to hug China’s top diplomat, but as they got closer Putin settled for a vigorous handshake instead. It was 22 February, two days before the one-year anniversary of Russia’s full-scale war against Ukraine, which China has yet to condemn or even to call a “war”. Instead, the two men vaunted the strength of Sino-Russian relations, which Putin happily declared were “reaching new milestones”. Quoting a Chinese idiom, Wang agreed that their relationship was “as firm as Mount Tai”.
The setting and the symbolism were striking. Putin and Wang sat close together, unmasked, in the grand Kremlin meeting room. There was no sign of the giant table that had been used to keep the French president Emmanuel Macron at a humiliating distance during his visit to Moscow in February 2022. A bronze statue of Peter the Great, the 18th-century Russian emperor on whom Putin apparently models himself, looked on from the corner. The two men exchanged pleasantries and greeted each other as respectable statesmen and close partners, who represent two of the world’s great powers. The underlying message was that nothing has changed despite Putin’s murderous assault on Ukraine.
Four days earlier, on 18 February, Wang had addressed the Munich Security Conference in Germany, where he announced that China would shortly unveil a “peace proposal” for Ukraine. But any hopes that Beijing might finally have decided to leverage its relationship with Moscow to broker peace – a prospect that has periodically been raised and dashed since the start of the war – withered after Wang’s audience with Putin.
[See also: Will China stop Russia going nuclear?]
In Moscow, Wang told the Russian leader that the international situation was “complex and severe”, but their relationship had “stood the test of the drastic changes in the world landscape and become mature and tenacious”. He stressed that both China and Russia were committed to a “multipolar world and greater democracy in international relations” – a claim hard to reconcile with the reality that Russia was at that very moment attempting to subjugate a democratic state. During a separate meeting with Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of Russia’s Security Council and one of Putin’s closest aides, Wang described relations between their countries as “solid as rock”.
So it was hardly a surprise that China’s “peace plan”, released two days later on 24 February, was rather hollow. Instead, the 12-point paper repeated well-worn official talking points about the conflict, and repeated Russian language about “legitimate security concerns” and the evils of “unilateral sanctions”. The document did at least reiterate a call that China’s leader Xi Jinping has previously made, that nuclear “weapons must not be used”. Yet you would never know from reading the text that Russia had invaded Ukraine, and there was no mention of the need to withdraw Russian troops. Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky, who has sought a meeting or a call with Xi since the start of the conflict, responded cautiously that it was “not bad” that China had started talking about Ukraine, but “the question is what follows the words”.
Ukraine’s Western partners had a stonier response. Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, said of the Chinese proposal: “We will look at the principles, of course, but we will look at them against the backdrop that China has taken sides.” Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, accused China of “trying to have it both ways”, claiming publicly to be “neutral and seeking peace, while at the same time it is talking up Russia’s false narrative about the war”. He warned that the US believes the Chinese leadership is now contemplating sending military aid to Russia, a threshold it has previously declined to cross.
There is no doubt that Xi would prefer that this war ends. The conflict has driven up global food and energy prices at a time when China’s economic growth was already slowing. It has reinvigorated Western alliances such as Nato – whose summit last year was attended by the leaders of Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand, and has identified China in its latest security strategy as a “systemic challenge” for the first time. Russia’s war has also focused US attention on bolstering Taiwan’s defences and galvanised Japan’s rearmament. But this does not mean that Beijing wants to stop the fighting at any cost, especially on terms that amount to a Russian defeat.
Despite the economic, political and humanitarian costs of the war, China views Russia above all else as a crucial partner in its contest with the US. If Russia suffers a humiliating defeat in Ukraine, perhaps even threatening Putin’s hold on power, Xi fears that the US and its allies will be able to turn their full attention on containing China, preventing the country’s continued rise. Liu Xin, a news anchor on the state-controlled network CGTN, summed up this line of thought following a Western appeal to China to help bring Putin into line during the first month of the conflict: “Can you help me fight your friend so that I can concentrate on fighting you later?”
[See also: This is how China wants the war in Ukraine to end]
The collapse of Putin’s regime would risk a new pro-Western – or at least less overtly anti-Western – government taking over in Moscow and controlling the territory on the other side of the more than 4,000-kilometre-long Sino-Russian border. Xi and Putin prefer the status quo of good relations with the like-minded autocrat across that border, and mutually beneficial trade, which gives China secure access to Russian energy supplies and Russia much-needed revenue. Since the start of the war, bilateral trade has reached an all-time high. Feng Yujun, one of China’s top Russia analysts, commented earlier this year that Sino-Russian relations are “running smoothly” and have been “basically unaffected” by the events of the past year.
The best outcome to this conflict for China would be a halt to the fighting that leaves Putin firmly in control and preserves Russia’s status as a global power, while also cementing Beijing’s role as the senior partner in the relationship. This would ensure preferential rates on Russian oil and gas, as well as continued access to the advanced weapons systems China needs to bolster its own capabilities. Set against these priorities, Beijing is unlikely to fret over the consequences of any settlement for Ukraine’s territorial integrity (despite this supposedly being one of China’s most important principles), never mind the prospect of holding Putin to account.
This should not be surprising. Plenty of countries have set aside their avowed principles to serve their own interests during this war. India and Brazil, two of the world’s largest democracies, are buying up Russian oil exports and helping to sustain Putin’s war machine. South Africa joined naval drills with Russia and China in early February. One year into the war, Russia is not as isolated as the West might have hoped. Perhaps to illustrate that point, Putin told Wang during his visit to the Kremlin that he also looked forward to welcoming Xi to Moscow in the coming months. We should be under no illusions that Xi is going there to negotiate peace.
The perils of autocracy in Xi Jinping’s China and Vladimir Putin’s Russia
“Russia cannot afford to lose, so we need a kind of a victory”: Sergey Karaganov on what Putin wants
Why China and India are sending troops to Russia
This article appears in the 01 Mar 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Mission