The Big Takeaway From Xi’s Summit With Putin
China is ensuring the war in Ukraine will continue—but not by supplying military aid.
China’s President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hands during a signing ceremony following their talks at the Kremlin in Moscow on Tuesday.
Vladimir Astapkovich/Getty Images
The two-day summit between Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping seemed to be, from start to finish, an escapade of pomp and circumstance, sound and fury, signifying … well, not quite nothing, but much less than many had hoped or feared.
Putin was hoping that Xi would come to Russia’s aid in its war on Ukraine and shower its army with modern working weapons, as the West has done for Kyiv. But nothing was said of that in either leader’s concluding remarks or their very detailed nine-page joint statement.
In fact, to the extent the joint statement mentioned the Ukraine war at all, it was mainly to call for a resumption of “peace talks” (with no details beyond those of Xi’s non-starter proposal of a month ago). It also restated the axiom that a nuclear war “cannot be won” (thus undermining Putin’s nuclear-threat red lines) and cited U.N. resolutions on the preservation of territorial integrity (which readers might justifiably take as a finger-wag at Russia).
The statement did, however, trace the war to NATO’s expansion and the United States’ proclivity for containing and “encircling” all its enemies, including Russia and China—and that is where Xi’s interests seem to lie in all this.
He has tied a knot of sorts with Putin as a way of keeping the Americans focused on Europe, and thus distracted from China’s activities in East Asia. He is tightening this knot a bit by promising economic investment in Russia, which Putin desperately seeks in order to counter the Western sanctions imposed since his invasion a year and a month ago.
But Xi made clear that China is not opening or expanding a military relationship with Russia. The joint statement mentioned myriad fields in which the two counties will “forge a closer partnership”—energy, civil aviation, car manufacturing, metallurgy, port-traffic capacity, rail and sea cargo, and agriculture, to cite a few.
And yet that long list contains nothing about military assistance. As if to stress that this omission was deliberate, the spokesman for China’s foreign ministry tweeted on Wednesday, the morning after the summit’s conclusion:
China has no selfish agenda on the Ukraine issue. We did not stand by, nor did we add fuel to the fire, or exploit the situation for selfish gain. All that we have done boils down to supporting talks for peace.
Also, the joint statement that was issued by the two sides at the end of the summit was remarkably vague about the nature of this new relationship. Take this example:
The two sides pointed out that the Sino-Russian relationship is not similar to the military and political alliance during the Cold War, but transcends this model of state relations and has the nature of non-alignment, non-confrontation, and not-targeting of third countries. The China-Russia relationship is mature, stable, independent, and tenacious. It has withstood the test of the new [COVID] epidemic and the vicissitudes of the international situation. It is not affected by external influences and has shown vitality.
This sounds very much like a philanderer telling his latest squeeze, who’s desperate for a sign of commitment, that they don’t need a ring to display their affection because they’re beyond such showy symbolism.
However, this passage does conclude with a pragmatic and somewhat worrisome statement (it’s why I said up top that the summit did not quite amount to nothing): “Russia needs a prosperous and stable China, and China needs a strong and successful Russia.”
The wording is intriguingly precise. Nobody is pretending that Russia is “prosperous and stable”; those are adjectives that describe modern-day China and that make it clear to one and all that Beijing is the dominant player in this partnership. What China needs out of this relationship is a Russia that’s “strong and successful” enough to keep the U.S. preoccupied with Europe and thus less attentive in its efforts to contain China in Asia. Xi will help Putin survive the storm economically, and thus remain in power, for this broad strategic aim.
This is hardly the most solid foundation for a strategic partnership. There are many avenues for Washington to carve out if it wishes to reduce tensions with Beijing—if just to the point where both sides can pursue common interests and reduce the chances of U.S.-China conflict.
But if one reason for the sanctions against Russia was to weaken Putin’s ability to sustain the war, then China’s economic assistance—even if coupled with no military aid beyond, maybe, a small number of drones—will help shore up Putin and keep the Russian army fighting. In other words, the Xi-Putin summit suggests the war is going to last for a while longer.