Chinese President Xi Jinping is on his way to Moscow on a “journey of friendship”, “cooperation” and “peace”, weeks after Beijing unveiled a 12-point position paper calling for a ceasefire in the war between Russia and Ukraine and days after it brokered a surprising rapprochement between old enemies of the Middle East, Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Xi’s three-day visit, which begins Monday, will include one-on-one talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin, a man who has been described by the Chinese leader as his “dear friend” and who is now wanted for war by the International Criminal Court. crime allegations.
The summit in Moscow will be the 40th meeting between the two men.
Xi’s visit – who was recently reappointed as China’s leader for an unprecedented third term and who seeks a greater role for Beijing on the world stage – has sparked hope in some quarters for a breakthrough in ending the war in Ukraine.
Now entering its second year, the conflict has claimed tens of thousands of lives, displaced millions from their homes and caused widespread economic pain, with inflation rising globally and shortages of grain, fertilizers and energy.
Hopes for China’s role in peace in Ukraine have been fueled not only by Beijing’s mediation in Saudi Arabia’s détente and its proposal for a Moscow-Kiev ceasefire and dialogue, but also by media reports that Xi plans to follow his summit with Putin with a virtual meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
If it takes place, the talk between Xi and Zelenskyy will be their first since Russian tanks crossed the border into Ukraine last February.
Despite the increase in China’s global diplomacy, most observers say Xi’s state visit is more about strengthening the “no borders” partnership he announced with Putin weeks before the Russian invasion than about brokering peace in China. Ukraine.
For starters, none of the warring factions seem ready or willing to end the fighting.
“Unless and until Russia and Ukraine have exhausted their will to fight on and look for exits from this conflict, it is not possible to end it,” said Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia program at Germany’s Marshall Fund. the United States. “And I don’t think China wants to get in the middle of it.”
China’s 12-point document on Ukraine, Glaser said, was a summary of its positions and not a “peace plan,” especially since it did not outline a specific area in which Beijing was willing to play a more active role.
Indeed, the paper – unveiled on the anniversary of the war – reflects China’s ambiguous attitude to the conflict. While the Chinese newspaper supports Ukraine’s sovereignty and calls for a quick resolution of the war, it blames the crisis on what it calls a “Cold War mentality”, i.e. NATO’s expansion to the east and the West’s contempt for Russia’s security concerns. The paper also condemns the West’s “unilateral sanctions” against Russia, despite Beijing largely complying with the measures over the past year.
Glaser added that the Saudi-Iran deal – which ended seven years of estrangement and called into question the US’s longstanding role as the main power broker in the Middle East – did not mean China would now step forward as a major mediator for global disputes.
“The lesson of the Saudi-Iran deal is that China is very well aligned with opportunity,” she said. “It became increasingly clear that Saudi Arabia and Iran were looking for a way to improve their relationship. And China seized that opportunity to bring that across the finish line.”
And for the war between Russia and Ukraine, that “moment has not yet arrived,” she added.
Still, the conflict is likely to be high on Xi’s agenda, and while there is deep skepticism about China’s ability to be a fair mediator in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, analysts say it appears to be in a better position. than most other countries to play as a mediator.
China is Russia’s main ally, and while it has adhered to Western sanctions and refrained from providing military aid to Moscow, it has maintained normal trade relations and last year replaced Germany as the largest importer of Russian oil. Bilateral trade in unsanctioned sectors has also exploded, reaching a record $190 billion last year.
The two neighboring countries – which share a long border – also kept up the pace of their joint military exercises by holding large-scale naval exercises in the East China Sea in late December. They also held joint exercises with South Africa in February and Iran earlier this month.
Responsible, great power
China’s influence over Russia, as well as its desire to be seen as a responsible third power in world politics, could prompt Xi, some analysts said, to pressure Putin for “mini-steps” toward a ceasefire and dialogue in Ukraine.
“China wants to be seen as a responsible superpower,” said Moritz Rudolf, a fellow and researcher in law at Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Center. “It is remarkable that China puts forward its own position at all, when it is actually about a war in Europe. This is a really new quality of China’s engagement at the international level and I think it’s here to stay.”
Rudolf said that while China’s position paper was devoid of substance, Beijing has positioned itself as the “only country potentially capable, or at least will be one of the countries that will have to be part of a peaceful solution” in Ukraine. This, he said, is in line with China’s ambitions to reform a global order it sees as unfairly skewed towards the West and one in which the US and its allies set the rules in their favor.
Whether Xi seeks an active role in the Ukraine crisis will likely become clear after his trip to Moscow, Rudolf said.
If the Chinese leader were to visit other European capitals after his trip to Russia — as reported by the Wall Street Journal — and speak to Zelenskyy shortly after his summit with Putin, it would show whether Xi was indeed playing a game. serious role, he added.
With low expectations of a breakthrough in Ukraine, analysts say substantive discussions between Xi and Putin are likely to focus on expanding and deepening their economic and military ties.
“Overall, it is an important visit that shows the importance of a strategic partnership between Russia and China for each other,” said Anna Kireeva, an associate professor in the Department of Asian and African Studies at MGIMO University in Moscow.
“New economic agreements can be expected, especially in the field of energy … Russia urgently needs to find alternative destinations for its exports, and China is more than willing to buy Russian energy resources and raw materials at reduced prices,” she said.
This could translate into a deal on a new pipeline, Power-of-Siberia 2, to supply gas to China via Mongolia, she said.
Xi and Putin will also use their summit to signal the stability of relations between their two countries despite the turbulence in world politics, thus forming a united front against the US and boosting Moscow’s global standing, Kireeva said .
“As long as Moscow and Beijing maintain their strategic partnership, it means they cannot be completely surrounded geopolitically,” she added.