"Neutral" China cozies up to Russia and proves its untrustworthiness

Chairman Xi Jinping, China’s paramount leader for life, arrived in Moscow on March 20 to visit long-time ally, Russian President Vladimir Putin. Both autocrats were seeking gain from the three-day visit. For Putin to be seen with a smiling Xi would help offset Russia’s forlorn international isolation. As for Xi, he was playing the role […]

Chairman Xi Jinping, China’s paramount leader for life, arrived in Moscow on March 20 to visit long-time ally, Russian President Vladimir Putin. Both autocrats were seeking gain from the three-day visit.
For Putin to be seen with a smiling Xi would help offset Russia’s forlorn international isolation. As for Xi, he was playing the role of the international statesman to the hilt. Thus, there was a great deal of symbolism in Xi’s ninth visit to Russia and his 41st meeting with Putin overall. Xi has actually met Putin more than double the number of times he has met other world leaders.
Nonetheless, the record shows that Xi was voluntarily meeting with a ruthless autocrat wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes. And China still maintains it is on the “right side of history”?
Indeed, at the same time as Xi was meeting accused war criminal Putin, Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida was in Kyiv meeting with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to offer support to the besieged country.
These two meetings demonstrate how the world has changed. Eighty years ago, militaristic Japan was an aggressor attempting to conquer China, Asia and the Pacific. Remarkably, China is now devotedly siding with aggressive Russia, and Japan is siding with a victim of war.
On 21 March, China and Russia released a joint statement regarding the war that was riddled with inconsistencies. “The Russian side speaks positively of China’s objective and impartial position on the Ukraine issue,” it said.
Yet Beijing is totally biased. Immediately after Russia’s invasion, China required all educators to undergo special instruction classes to learn how to teach their students about Russia’s legitimate actions. Indeed, China blindly regurgitated all of Putin’s talking points to the Chinese masses.
Further, China’s 13 most recent vetoes in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) all aligned with Russian ones. Ten related to opposing American and allied efforts to address the Syrian conflict.
Beijing also abstains from voting on UNSC resolutions that run counter to Russian interests – examples include a 2014 resolution invalidating a referendum that led to Crimean independence. Beijing also refused to condemn Russia for its Ukraine invasion in 2022.
The friendly bonhomie between Putin and Xi in Moscow was ample evidence that China is not in the least impartial when it comes to the Ukraine conflict.
The joint statement continued, “The two sides oppose the practice by any country or group of countries to seek advantages in the military, political and other areas to the detriment of the legitimate security interests of other countries.”
What could be more detrimental to the security interests of other countries than to militarily invade and wage war? In fact, at the very time Xi was departing Moscow, Russia’s military launched yet another barrage of missiles against Ukraine, killing four in a school dormitory. China, in its hypocrisy, can still not bring itself to call this a war. Despite more than a year of savage fighting on Ukrainian sovereign territory, China only calls it a “crisis”.
Beijing and Moscow sanctimoniously said in their statement: “On the Ukraine issue, the two sides believe that the purposes and principles of the United Nations Charter must be observed and international law must be respected.” The obvious question is, when will Russia then start doing so?
This joint statement has no credibility whatsoever. Worse, China pretends to be an impartial peace broker, when in fact it deliberately supports Putin in his Machiavellian schemes of violence.
The joint release continued: “The two sides stress that responsible dialogue is the best way for appropriate solutions.” Really? There has been a marked lack of engagement between Xi and Zelenskyy. The latter revealed he has not received any proposals whatsoever to hold talks with Xi.
Ukraine had requested Chinese cooperation on its ten-point peace plan and the holding of a summit meeting, but instead, China simply attempts to foist its own twelve-point plan.
Zelenskyy said plainly, “I did not get a proposal from China to mediate. I didn’t get the proposal to meet.” The Ukrainian leader unsurprisingly expressed scepticism about China’s plan, insisting that “respect of sovereignty and territorial integrity” must come first.
Beijing published “China’s Position on the Political Settlement of the Ukraine Crisis”, on 24 February. Yet the facts speak for themselves – China is more interested in publicizing its plan and attracting applause than it actually is in getting Moscow and Kyiv together. It is little more than a publicity stunt.
Towards the end of the joint statement on Ukraine, “The two sides call for stopping all moves that lead to tensions and the protraction of fighting to prevent the crisis from getting worse or even out of control.”
Even a child knows that the simplest way to end the war is for Russia to withdraw from Ukrainian territory. This is so obvious, yet China is not urging Putin to do so.
There is scant evidence that China is actively exporting weapons and military equipment to Russia. Nonetheless, there are worrying indications that Chinese businesses – even state-owned ones – are not immune from making a quick profit.
In September 2022, Ukraine found Chinese-made M-83 60mm mortar rounds and MP-1A fuses in Russian fighting positions. These likely reached Russia through intermediaries like Albania or Afghanistan via the grey arms market.
It is also alleged that a dozen shipments of Chinese drone parts reached Russia via Turkey, while 12 tons of Chinese-made body armour also reached Russia. DJI sent parts such as batteries and cameras to Russia via the UAE. Ukrainian soldiers have shot down a Mugin-5 Pro commercial UAV, made in Xiamen, China, armed with a 20kg bomb to turn it into a “dumb bomb”.
There are also allegations that Chinese state-owned Norinco sent 1,000 CQ-A assault rifles to Russian company Tekhkrim in June 2022. These assault rifles modelled on the M16 were described as “civilian hunting rifles”.
It will be virtually impossible for China to secretly export overt items such as armoured vehicles or artillery rounds to Russia without this being discovered. However, if China reverses its self-imposed ban on exporting lethal arms to Russia, this will threaten to widen the war.
Yet, in China’s warped logic, NATO and the West are guilty of protracting the war by supplying Ukraine with the means to defend itself. It obviously believes that “civilian hunting rifles” (aka assault rifles) are somehow contributing to peace in Ukraine, and that the war is best ended by Ukraine surrendering to Russian tyranny.
Xi’s staunch alignment with Russia has taken the gloss of China’s relations with both Western and Eastern European capitals. No matter how China markets itself, or what flowery language it utters, nothing can disguise Xi’s deliberate support for Russia.
Xi said that “to consolidate and develop long-term good-neighbourly and friendly relations with Russia conforms to the historical logic and is China’s strategic choice, which will not be affected by any turn of events”. Furthermore, “No matter how the international situation changes, China will continue to promote the China-Russia comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination for a new era.”
This is pretty clear. No matter what war crimes Russia commits, no matter how long the invasion continues, China will treasure its relationship with Russia.
Xi said that, since China and Russia are permanent members of the UNSC, they both have “natural responsibilities to make joint efforts to steer and promote global governance in a direction that meets the expectations of the international community and promote the building of a community with a shared future for mankind”.
Yet, that direction is not good, and it certainly does not find favour with the majority of the international community. Beijing asserted, “China has based its position on the merits of the matter per se and stood firm for peace and dialogue and on the right side of history.” Of course, the Chinese Communist Party has turned the rewriting of history into both an art and science.
Xi and Putin were at pains to point out that their relationship transcended the type of military-political alliance common during the Cold War; it has “the nature of no alliance, no confrontation and not targeting any third party”.
Again, this is blatant misdirection, for China is upholding Russia’s confrontation with Ukraine, including the deaths of thousands of civilians and combatants.
Why is China so adamant? The Center for Strategic and International Studies in the USA identified five ways in which China benefits from its relationship with Moscow: Russia supports China’s core interests; Vladimir Putin personally supports Xi Jinping and his key initiatives; Russia helps to magnify China’s global reach at the expense of Western influence; Russia enhances China’s military power through arms sales and joint military exercises; and Russia assists China in meeting important economic and energy needs.
Under the latter point, for example, Chinese imports from Russia by value comprise crude oil (51 per cent), coal (9 per cent), petroleum gases (5 per cent) and refined oil (1.7 per cent).
Yet March’s Xi-Putin summit can perhaps be best described by the Chinese idiom “Loud thunder but few raindrops”. There were vague promises and plans, but overall there were positive advances for China and losses for Russia.
Sam Greene, Professor of Russian Politics at King’s College London, commented that Putin was “obscenely generous” with his praise and offers.
“This summit, then, brings home exactly how much Putin has lost. Prior to the war – even after 2014 – Putin occupied a position of strategic manoeuvrability. He could arbitrage between east and west, reaping windfalls for his regime along the way. That’s all gone now. Putin tells his people he’s fighting for Russia’s sovereignty. In truth, he’s mortgaged the Kremlin to Beijing. The question now is one for Xi: What will he do with his newest acquisition?”
Putin pledged to complete the Strength of Siberia 2 pipeline to ensure uninterrupted oil and gas for China, reinforcing structural dependence on China instead of on Europe. Furthermore, Putin indicated a reorientation of agricultural trade towards China and a strategic role for China in developing Russia’s far east and high north.
Greene said this was “a move Putin’s own security apparatus has long resisted (for obvious reasons). Again, strategic wins for China”.
Russia offered to begin using the yuan in transactions with non-Western countries. It is uncertain whether this will ever occur, for it would strengthen the yuan and weaken the ruble. Furthermore, Moscow offered China the first bite at the cherry on assets of Western companies that pulled out of Russia. This strengthens China’s presence in Russia, with no reciprocity.
Greene concluded: “To be clear, there are situational benefits for Moscow in each of these things, and in others. But I’m struggling to come up with something that Xi wants from Putin that he didn’t get – and the list of things Putin wants from Xi and didn’t get is considerable. While there were undoubtedly agreements we are not meant to know about, there is no indication here of a significant increase in military support for Russia – nor even of a willingness on Xi’s part to ramp up diplomatic support. A swing and a miss for Putin.”
Greene added: “Rhetorically, too, the summit was lopsided. Putin praised Xi’s successes in China and its leading role in the world. Xi said that Putin was a reliable partner. Even Xi’s endorsement of Putin’s electoral chances in 2024 was, frankly, humiliating (coming from a man who doesn’t even have to pretend to win an election). Putin greeted Xi with a rhetorical bear hug. Xi gave Putin a pat on the head and told him to run along now and play.”
Notably, Xi’s profession of love, issued on 4 February just days before Putin invaded Ukraine, was gone. The phrase “partnership without limits” was notably absent from the latest communique. Beijing would probably agree that Putin’s Ukraine invasion was ill-conceived and inept. However, China cannot afford Russia to lose.
Pavel K Baev, writing for The Jamestown Foundation think-tank in the USA, noted: “The difference in dynamics of Western arms supply to Ukraine, which have massively increased since the start of 2023, and Chinese procrastinations have become seriously detrimental for Russia. The two strategic partners are operating on different timetables, with China’s focus on influencing the elections in Taiwan in early 2024, and Russia bracing for a Ukrainian spring offensive led by trained armoured brigades and Western main battle tanks. Putin may have set his mind on the long war perspective and signalled his resolve to Xi, who finds this option quite agreeable as US attention and resource allocation would remain centered on the European theater. Therefore, it is up to Ukraine to prove these two mutually mistrustful autocrats wrong again, and unwavering Western support is the key to making China contemplate the consequences of Russia’s defeat.”
China is intruding upon Russia’s manipulative role in the Middle East too. Xi is actively courting a peacemaker role there, with a visit to Saudi Arabia in December 2022 and the Iranian president visiting Beijing in February.
Xi is now safely cemented in his third term, with opposition factions all but eliminated and COVID’s shackles thrown off. We should expect him to throw his weight around more.
Xi is proving quite tolerant of risk and he is wading in, believing his country now has the heft to shape the international landscape. Xi has thus been espousing the Global Development Initiative, Global Security Initiative and Global Civilization Initiative.
It is difficult to know what these are exactly. As with the Belt and Road Initiative, it took years for a vague concept to fructify and be defined. Nonetheless, the undercurrent of all these initiatives is to position China as an alternative business and security partner, and as a counter to American “hegemony”.
In essence, Xi is shaping a showdown with Western-style democracy. Naturally, there is a sharp dividing line between democracies and autocracies, with both Russia and China chief proponents of the latter.
At their brotherly farewell, Xi alarmingly assured Putin: “Change is coming that hasn’t happened in 100 years. And we are driving this change together,” something that Putin affirmed. Xi clearly anticipates China’s triumph over Western historical “oppression”, aided by Russia’s despotic support.
Yet the recent events in Moscow lay bare the truth that China is not neutral. Xi has no credibility, and pretending that he can be a mediator in the Russian-Ukraine war is like inviting a fox into the chicken coop to keep the peace.