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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

In a brother act with Putin, Xi reveals China’s fear of containment

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Chinese President Xi Jinping pose for a photo during a signing ceremony following their talks at The Grand Kremlin Palace, in Moscow, March 21, 2023.

By Chris Buckley

China’s leader, Xi Jinping, flew into Moscow this week cast by Beijing as its emissary for peace in Ukraine. His summit with President Vladimir Putin of Russia, however, demonstrated that his priority remains shoring up ties with Moscow to gird against what he sees as a long campaign by the United States to hobble China’s ascent.

Talk of Ukraine was overshadowed by Xi’s vow of ironclad solidarity with Russia as a political, diplomatic, economic and military partner: two superpowers aligned in countering American dominance and a Western-led world order. The summit showed Xi’s intention to entrench Beijing’s tilt toward Moscow against what he recently called an effort by the United States at the full-fledged “containment” of China.

Xi and Putin used the pomp of the three-day state visit that ended on Wednesday to signal to their publics and to Western capitals that the bond between their two countries remained robust and, in their eyes, indispensable, 13 months after Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine. They laid out their vision for the world in a nine-point joint statement that covered everything from Taiwan to climate change and relations with Mongolia, often depicting the United States as the obstacle to a better, fairer world.

“It looks like a strategic plan for a decade or even more. It’s not a knee-jerk reaction to the war in Ukraine,” said Alexander Korolev, a senior lecturer at the University of New South Wales in Australia, who studies Chinese-Russian relations. Noting the statement’s repeated criticisms of the United States, he said: “The threat is no longer implicit and hypothetical; it’s very explicit.”

Discussion of China’s murky proposal to end the war in Ukraine appeared only in the last section of their joint statement, offering no specifics about a way forward. In a warning to Western countries supporting Ukraine, it said that any settlement to the crisis must “prevent the formation of confrontational blocs that add fuel to the flames.”

Instead, the leaders talked up plans to enhance economic cooperation and draw more Chinese investors to Russia. They declared their admiration for each other’s authoritarian rule, with Xi going as far as endorsing Putin for another term in power, indicating to Russians that he was sure that they should back Putin in elections a year away.

“Xi Jinping in effect launched the reelection campaign for Putin,” said Maria Repnikova, a scholar at Georgia State University who studies political communication in China and Russia. “It seems like an important signal that highlights the extent of their friendship and that he’s really rooting for Putin.”

But while Xi sought to show China’s commitment to Russia, he stopped short of writing Putin a blank check of support. Though Putin claimed that a new pipeline for delivering natural gas to China would be finished by 2030, Xi did not confirm the deal.

China also calibrated the language used to describe its relationship with Russia. When Xi and Putin issued a joint statement last year, three weeks before Russia invaded Ukraine, they had said that Beijing and Moscow had a “limitless friendship.” This time, they sought to draw clearer boundaries, declaring that they are not in a traditional political and military alliance. Xi and other Chinese officials have also generally avoided reviving that rhetoric of “limitless friendship,” even though Putin still used it.

Xi’s and Putin’s media operatives have cast their relationship as a brotherly bond, cemented over shots of vodka, birthday cakes and ice cream during more than 40 meetings. But Xi’s calculus toward Russia is not based on sentiment. It is founded in China’s broader strategic calculations that are likely to remain fixed, whatever the outcome of the coming spring battles in Ukraine.

In Xi’s view, recently stated in unusually blunt terms, the United States is engaged in “all-around containment, encirclement and suppression of China” — a campaign of sanctions and diplomatic pressure that he says has brought “unprecedented severe challenges” to the country. To counter Western pressure, Xi wants to give Putin the political and economic support to secure their partnership, even if China may not want to wade into Russia’s war in Ukraine.

“Xi is making a significant gesture of political support to Putin with this trip, basically demonstrating that the relationship will be resilient even in these straitened circumstances and that he is willing to live with the opprobrium of the West,” said Andrew Small, the author of “No Limits: The Inside Story of China’s War With the West.”

Strong relations with Russia have become more crucial to China as its ties with the United States have deteriorated. A succession of events since last year appear to have hardened Xi’s wariness of Washington, even as he as sought to stabilize relations with President Joe Biden.

Chinese officials have pointed to U.S. restrictions on Chinese access to advanced semiconductors that are needed in anything from supercomputing to weapons development. They have also condemned moves by the United States and Britain to help Australia build nuclear-powered submarines, to counter China’s military growth.

“Beijing is trying to emphasize to a mainly domestic audience that the United States is engaged in a multidomain, multipronged, and multi-actor effort to actively inhibit China’s continued rise,” said Jude Blanchette, the holder of the Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Xi’s term of “all-around containment” is intended to summarize “an effort to slow Chinese growth, block its access to cutting-edge technologies, and to erode China’s ties with neighboring countries,” Blanchette said.

In their joint statement, Xi and Putin criticized NATO’s efforts to pay more attention to Asia. The leaders held up China and Russia’s relationship as superior to traditional Western military blocs because it is “mature, stable, independent and resilient.” China’s official news agency, Xinhua, issued an article explaining why the two countries would not want to establish a formal alliance that obliged them to aid each other in wars.

Some readers were not convinced. “It’s only in name that we’re not allies,” said one reader’s comment.

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