It might have been a “bro fest celebrating authoritarian power”, as it was said by Senator Jeff Merkley (D-Ore).
Or it might have been an episode in the “marriage of convenience, but not affection” (as White House National Security Council Strategic Communications Coordinator John Kirby put it).
Or maybe it was a “journey of friendship, cooperation or peace” and “a rational way out of the crisis”, as Chinese state media reported. A bilateral cooperation that “has truly unlimited possibilities and prospects”, as President Putin said after the pompous state dinner.
Either way, it seems that Chinese-Russian friendship is here to stay. And, after the state visit of President Putin’s “good old friend” to Moscow, there are a few key conclusions to draw.
Russia is still not isolated
This is not a big surprise after most of the world has rejected to join the Western-led sanctions regime against Russia. Xi Jinping’s visit to Moscow left no questions about his country’s commitment to maintaining bilateral relations.
A declaration of love, supported by about a dozen agreements bolstering cooperation in areas from trade and technology to propaganda, along with advancing cooperation projects in oil, gas, coal, electricity and nuclear energy; cooperating in energy and food security, and developing rail and other cross-border logistics infrastructure.
While there is certainly an ever-growing asymmetry in their relation that slowly might even evolve into a certain level of dependency, China has found a useful ally in Russia in its quest for a more prominent global role. Together they can advertise that they have “an all-encompassing partnership” in a world threatened by “acts of hegemony, despotism and bullying”.
Russia might be willing to accept Chinese mediation in Ukraine … or plays the cards China handed to it
The Russian President declared at the eve of the visit that his country was “grateful for the balanced line of China in connection with the events taking place in Ukraine, for understanding their background and true causes. We welcome China’s willingness to play a constructive role in resolving the crisis.”
This might not be what many wish to hear, but realistically China has probably better chances to lead peace negotiations than most, as Beijing has the attention of Russia.
The actual level of influence China has on Russia is yet unknown, as President Xi couldn’t (or wouldn’t) stop the war until now. It is unclear whether he traveled to Moscow with the intention to achieve some sort of a progress in this question, the two leaders did nothing but called for the cessation of actions that “increase tensions”. They did so less than a few days before Moscow announced the deployment of nuclear weapons to Belarus.
China is playing a long term game
“Together we should push forward these changes that have not happened for 100 years. Take care,” was the parting message of the Chinese politician. While electoral cycles do influence certain China is focusing on the medium- and the long term. China (and Russia) are hoping for a new version of “multipolar world”, in which American influence vanes and Chinese emerges.
While Beijing cannot, in the foreseeable future, count with the improvement of Sino-American ties, it could still hope to keep its foothold in Europe, especially as it is struggling to restart its economy after COVID. The longer the conflict in Ukraine drags on, the less optimistic that outlook is, given Europe’s unified stance vis-à-vis Moscow. Thus, Beijing could have (and has) vested interests in ending the war and the ties with Russia might come at cost for the relations with Europe.
But in the long, strategic vision of Chinese geopolitics, the Ukrainian conflict is just a symptom of the changes taking place and not a real priority. The choice of siding with Russia is a “strategic one”, based on China’s “fundamental interests”. A balancing act that aims at preventing the West from arising victoriously and emboldened from the conflict and preventing the collapse of Russia, a very important military ally.
As of now, it is China alone that came up with any sort of solution for Ukraine. It might not be as neutral as it is claimed to be; and it surely does not talk about the withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukrainian territory (that was established as a baseline by Ukraine and the West).
But in a world, when it is all about optics, China can still pose as the one who tried, the “constructive force”. And Russia can pose as the one that claimed that the Chinese proposal “could form the basis of an eventual peace agreement when the West and Ukraine is ready”.
And Chinese “neutral behavior” seems to work everywhere else in the world. As a very important step, Honduras announced on March 26 that it cut diplomatic ties with Taiwan, following the footsteps of Dominica which did the same in 2018.