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Putin is now a junior partner—Xi’s Moscow trip prepares new ‘blueprint’ for China-Russia ties

The focus on China’s peace plan for Ukraine is missing the point about the ‘new blueprint’ of China-Russia relations being built on Putin's growing dependence on Xi.

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Xi Jinping’s three-day visit to Moscow is a watershed moment in China-Russia relationship. The Chinese president is confident about pivoting this partnership into a force that represents Beijing’s worldview as a counterargument to the current international order.

The modicum of the China-Russia ‘no-limits partnership’ was based on a relationship where Beijing and Moscow were on equal footing. But Xi’s Moscow visit may tip the balance in China’s favour because the ongoing war in Ukraine made Russia turn to its ‘best friend’ for help.

No wonder Beijing is confident. Chinese state media articles published on Monday, before the start of Xi’s trip, junked any mention of a ‘no-limits partnership’. An article signed by Xi and published by the Russian media before the visit also didn’t mention ‘no-limits partnership’. The omission is deliberate. Beijing has drawn the lines on supporting Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine.

On the other hand, Putin showered Xi with praise and called him an ‘old friend’.

“For me, it was also a good opportunity to meet my old friends, whom we have a particularly cordial relationship with,” said Putin in his signed article in Chinese published by People’s Daily.

Xi had last gone to Russia in June 2019 to attend the St Petersburg International Economic Forum.

Also read: Mature, tenacious — Chinese media celebrates ties with Russia ahead of Xi’s Moscow visit

The big boys’ meeting

Putin and Xi’s meeting in Moscow lasted 4.5 hours, and their exchange of pleasantries was captured on camera. Putin displayed a sense of eagerness during the interaction.

As much as the world’s eyes were on the China-Russia alliance, Ukraine – the elephant in the room – soon came up.

“I have put forth several proposals, i.e., observing the purposes and principles of the UN Charter, respect of the legitimate security concerns of all countries, supporting all efforts conducive to the peaceful settlement of the crisis, and ensuring the stability of global industrial and supply chains. They have become China’s fundamental principles for addressing the Ukraine crisis,” Xi wrote in the article.

Xi’s plan for Ukraine was based on the so-called peace plan proposed by Beijing titled “China’s Position on the Political Settlement of the Ukraine Crisis”. The plan offered little details about how China would convince the Kremlin to cease the hostilities in Ukraine.

According to the state media, the two sides had an “in-depth exchange of views on the Ukraine issue”.

Putin responded to Xi’s peace plan by saying that Russia welcomes China’s “willingness to play a constructive role in resolving the crisis.”

Though Xi’s suggestions about holding dialogue to negotiate peace in Ukraine weren’t new, a close reading shows that he also took a swipe at the US this time.

“A review of history shows that conflicts in the end have to be settled through dialogue and negotiation. China released a document on its position on the Ukraine crisis, advocating the political settlement of the crisis and rejecting the Cold War mentality and unilateral sanctions,” Xi said during his interaction with Putin.

China has often blamed the US for its ‘Cold War mentality’, a shorthand for the US-Soviet geopolitical contest in the past. Xi’s mention of sanctions is directed at the US’ Ukraine-related sanctions that have hit the Russian economy hard.

Also read: After Saudi-Iran, China wants to displace America. But won’t be ‘policeman of the world’

Whatever critics say

In the past few weeks, a variety of articles by Chinese experts on Russia have been translated by foreign scholars and Chinese state media to make them widely available. They express distaste with Russia’s recent turn toward an ultra-conservative philosophy to justify its actions in Ukraine.

“However, in reality, Russia’s conservative turn is in part a pendulum that has had to swing back towards traditional culture after unsuccessful attempts at Westernization,” wrote scholars Feng Yujun and Wen Longjie.

Chinese experts have identified the problem of far-right conservatism in Russian politics.

“At the same time, there is no shortage of far-right forces among the sympathisers and ‘fellow travellers’ of Russian conservatism. How to address their particularly high expectations of Russian conservatism is another major issue,” they wrote.

But these views can ultimately be viewed as opinions on Russia’s domestic and foreign policy with little bearing on what China’s top leadership in the foreign affairs commission and other groupings involving the Politburo Standing Committee decide.

These Chinese experts on Russia are likely asked to submit their views but what Xi and his team ends up acting on is anyone’s guess and can be only interpreted later.

Also read: China achieves what even US could not in the Middle East

A new ‘blueprint’

On Tuesday, Xi and Putin discussed a ‘new blueprint’ for China-Russia relations, although little details have emerged as of now.

“Jointly draw a new blueprint for the development of bilateral relations, and further deepen China-Russia mutually beneficial cooperation across the board,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Wang Wenbin said at the press conference.

Xi himself mentioned the ‘blueprint’ in his article ahead of the visit.

“I look forward to having an in-depth exchange of views with President Putin on the bilateral ties and major international and regional issues of shared interest, to draw a blueprint for China-Russia strategic coordination and practical cooperation in the new era,” Xi wrote.

The so-called ‘blueprint’ will likely tip the balance of relationship in Beijing’s favour as China will create new economic interdependencies. Moscow has no good options but to sign on the ‘new blueprint’ of relations with Beijing.

But how do we make sense of Xi’s long meetings with Putin? We can understand the context of the discussions by paying attention to the repeated reference to ‘major country diplomacy’ in his statements.

Xi is pivoting China as the driving force of ‘major country diplomacy’ in which Russia is a weak partner scrambling to latch on to the fading ‘no-limits partnership’.

“China and Russia have blazed a trail in the growth of major-country relations featuring strategic trust and good neighborliness, setting a good example for a new type of international relations,” said an authoritative commentary on the visit.

The focus on China’s peace plan for Ukraine in the international media is missing the point about the ‘new blueprint’ of China-Russia relations built on the Kremlin’s growing dependence on Zhongnanhai.

The real story of Xi’s visit to Moscow lies in Beijing’s focus on major country diplomacy with Chinese characteristics in which Putin is a junior partner.

The author is a columnist and a freelance journalist. He was previously a China media journalist at the BBC World Service. He is currently a MOFA Taiwan Fellow based in Taipei and tweets @aadilbrar. Views are personal.

(Edited by Prashant)

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