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Foreign Policy

Xi-Putin Summit: Symbolic on the Surface, but Deeper Underneath?

Apr 18, 2023

On the surface, last month’s summit between Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin was remarkable for its “unremarkability.” There were no major public announcements or agreements. The leaders’ statements, both at the meeting and in their pre-summit reciprocal editorials published in each other’s newspapers, largely reiterated earlier rhetoric. Optimists’ expectations that the encounter would see a major peace initiative were unfulfilled. Pessimists’ fears that China would agree to render overt military assistance to Russia were unrealized. Media predictions that the two governments would finalize long-discussed joint economic projects, such as a second enormous Power-of-Siberia gas pipeline, proved incorrect

Still, the encounter underscored the durability of the Sino-Russian alignment—continuing familiar diplomatic patterns despite all the international developments since the previous Xi-Putin summit in February 2022. 

Regarding the Ukraine War, there were widespread expectations that the leaders would discuss China’s role as a potential peacemaker. Since the authorities ended zero-COVID, PRC diplomacy has become newly invigorated. Just a few weeks earlier, the Chinese government had unexpectedly hosted a reconciliation meeting between Iran and Saudi Arabia, at which senior officials from both states agreed to restore full diplomatic relations. 

However, neither Xi nor Putin made public reference to a Chinese peace plan during the meeting. PRC policymakers likely understood that—unlike in the case of Iran and Saudi Arabia, whose leaders were both eager to reduce bilateral tensions and saw Beijing as a well-positioned party to help realize their plans—the prospects for near-term peace talks between Moscow and Kyiv are dim given how both parties believe that they currently have more to gain from continuing hostilities. There is a wide gap between Russia and Ukraine’s stated war aims over such critical issues as Ukraine’s borders, foreign-policy autonomy, and reparations and punishment for the war—subjects on which Chinese leaders and the 12-point Chinese peace plan are silent. 

The summit did not change China’s status as an enabler, but not co-belligerent, regarding Russia’s war in Ukraine. In addition to Putin, the Russian attendees at the high-level presidential discussions included the country’s most important national security officials. The composition of the Chinese delegation was not publicly disclosed, but it probably comprised an equivalent group of policymakers. The Russians acknowledged that the participants discussed the issue of “military-industrial cooperation.” Though no new arms sales or joint defense projects were announced, the two governments may have decided not to refer to these in public. The visibility of their defense industrial cooperation has decreased in the last few years, presumably to help shield the participants in such collaboration from Western sanctions. 

Presumably, the Chinese leadership’s concerns about Western sanctions explain why it has declined to provide Russia with lethal weapons. Though China might be able to provide some weapons through third parties such as Iran and North Korea, the small benefits that such a circumvention would offer to the Russian war effort would hardly be worth the sanctions risk. China would have to provide Russia with significant weaponry to have a meaningful impact on the battlefield. Beijing would probably only take such a risky decision if it looked like Russia would lose the war, which could lead to the collapse of the Putin government and the potential for a less Beijing-friendly leader to take power in the Kremlin. That Russian officials have publicly refrained from requesting Chinese military support for their forces in Ukraine suggests that the Russian government understands the logic of Beijing’s position. Russian officials also appreciate that China provides substantial indirect support to Russia through its large purchases of Russian exports as well as its diplomatic and media backing. 

In the economic domain, the meetings surrounding the Xi-Putin summit yielded mostly memoranda of understanding rather than new concrete joint projects. One unexpected development was Putin’s remark that Russia would seek to use the yuan for its trade with non-Western countries. The statement suggests that the Russian government has shelved previous plans to expand its use of the ruble for such transactions. Perhaps Putin’s gambit is to prioritize weakening the influence of the dollar, the Euro, and other Western currencies. Sacrificing a growth in the ruble’s potential international presence, at least for now, makes sense since the yuan is a more formidable competitor to Western currencies due to China’s more significant role in global trade and financial flows. Even so, the Chinese government has yet to publicly embrace Putin’s proposal, which ironically would likely require Chinese financial regulators to make it easier for Russians to convert their yuan holdings into other currencies. 

The wording that both leaders employed in their speeches and op-eds was comparable to that found in their previous statements and meetings. This was somewhat surprising in that Xi broke with precedent a few weeks earlier by attacking the United States by name for pursuing allegedly anti-Chinese policies. In a speech to business leaders during the Two Sessions, Xi claimed that “Western countries led by the United States have contained and suppressed [China] in an all-round way, which has brought unprecedented severe challenges to [its] development." Instead, China and Russia reaffirmed their traditional “three nos”—no alliances, no confrontations, and no targeting of third parties—stance in their summit statements. Conversely, they refrained from using their “no-limits” rhetoric (“Friendship between the two States has no limits, there are no ‘forbidden’ areas of cooperation”) of the 2022 states. This absence is understandable given all the criticism Western officials and media have leveled against China for this formulation. They argue the phrase implies some support within Beijing for the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The “no limits” formulation is more clearly a ceiling, not a floor; China and Russia can characterize their friendship as unlimited in principle even if it is constrained in practice. 

The summit helped both governments advance their public information campaigns in other ways. From Putin’s perspective, Xi’s first state visit to Russia since the Kremlin launched its invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, was welcome symbolism. Putin could show that he was not as isolated as Western governments hoped. Despite the war and Putin’s status as a war criminal in Western eyes, Xi went ahead with his annual head-of-state visit, suggesting business as usual. Furthermore, unlike their encounters during the preceding year, which typically lasted less than three hours, this summit lasted three days—longer than Xi has allocated to other countries for many years. On this occasion, Putin also did not apologize for making life difficult for Xi—as he did during his opening remarks at last September’s Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. Xi continues to engage regularly with Putin while shunning Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. 

From China’s perspective, by not providing weapons to Russia, Chinese media can portray Beijing as supporting de-escalation in Ukraine, while depicting the Western governments as hypocritical for providing billions of dollars of weaponry to Ukraine while insisting that China refrain from doing likewise. This approach may be welcome in other non-Western countries besides China and Russia—particularly in the Global South, and some European countries that Chinese diplomacy hopes to distance from the United States. In their recent visits to Beijing, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil and President Emmanuel Macron of France followed other leaders in lobbying Xi to use his perceived influence with Putin to end the war. 

During his sojourn, Xi undoubtedly reflected on how much has changed since he first visited Moscow as Chinese Communist Party leader in March 2013. In the ensuing decade, Putin has so alienated his potential Western partners so as to make his country a de facto vassal state of the PRC, even if his Chinese interlocutors are too polite to say so. 

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