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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Xi’s warm embrace of Putin in China is a defiance of the West

People talk as smoke billows from a nearby strike on industrial buildings in Kharkiv, Ukraine on Friday, May 17, 2024. Days after returning from a trip to Europe where he was lectured about the need to rein in Russia, China’s leader, Xi Jinping, used a summit with President Vladimir Putin to convey an uncomfortable reality to the West: His support for Putin remains steadfast. (Finbarr O’Reilly/The New York Times)

By David Pierson

Days after returning from a trip to Europe where he was lectured about the need to rein in Russia, China’s leader, Xi Jinping, used a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin to convey an uncomfortable reality to the West: His support for Putin remains steadfast.

Xi’s talks with Putin last week were a show of solidarity between two autocrats battling Western pressure. The two leaders put out a lengthy statement that denounced what they saw as American interference and bullying and laid out their alignment on China’s claim to self-ruled Taiwan and Russia’s “legitimate security interests” in Ukraine.

They pledged to expand economic and military ties, highlighted by Putin’s visit to a cutting-edge Chinese institute for defense research. Xi even initiated a cheek-to-cheek hug as he bade Putin farewell Thursday after an evening stroll in the Chinese Communist Party leadership compound in Beijing.

Western leaders looking for signs of any meaningful divergence between Xi and Putin, particularly on the war in Ukraine, would find none. Neither the risk of alienating Europe, a key trading partner needed to help revive China’s struggling economy, nor the threat of U.S. sanctions targeting Chinese banks that aid Russia’s war effort appeared to deter Xi’s embrace of Putin.

“The overarching goal of both Putin and Xi is to fight back against what they perceive as their existential enemy, which is the United States and the U.S.-led international order,” said Alicja Bachulska, an expert on Chinese foreign policy at the European Council on Foreign Relations. For China, “Yes, there are tensions with the West, but these tensions won’t lead to any kind of qualitative change in the way China has been approaching Russia and the war in Ukraine.”

Put another way, analysts said, Xi has already priced in the potential sanctions and tariffs as an acceptable cost for his strategic partnership with Russia. To Xi, Putin is an indispensable friend helping reshape the global order in China’s favor. And the more Washington pushes back — including on trade issues such as the latest tariffs on Chinese electric vehicles — the more Xi feels validated about his choices.

“Moscow’s strategic value to Xi only strengthens as geopolitical competition with the United States becomes more intense,” said Jude Blanchette, a China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

What is paramount to Xi and Putin is what they call the “democratization of international relations” — essentially the erosion of U.S. dominance and the empowering of nonaligned countries and rogue states to coalesce around their common grievances toward the West.

Their joint statement this past week laid out their vision of a new global order. It was one in which NATO or U.S. security alliances in Asia would not interfere with their territorial claims to Ukraine or Taiwan; the United States could not bully other countries with sanctions because the dollar would no longer be the world’s reserve currency for trade; and autocracies would have the right to rule “according to their own national conditions,” unimpeded by universal values like human rights and social equality.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has intensified this bid to rewire the world. The war has emerged as a way for an axis of anti-Western countries to push back against the United States and its allies. Russia’s war machine is bolstered by Chinese semiconductors and other dual-use technologies; by North Korean missiles and shells; and by Iranian drones. The war has provided an opportunity for Russia, China, North Korea and Iran to deepen military coordination and evade sanctions by facilitating trade outside the reach of the U.S.-led financial system. That could prove useful in any future conflict with the United States.

Xi may have had “questions and concerns” about the war in Ukraine early on, once it became apparent that Russia would not secure a rapid and decisive victory. He bristled when Putin hinted at using tactical nuclear weapons, a red line for China. And he has had the difficult — and some say, contradictory — task of trying to cast China as neutral on the war to maintain steady ties with the West, while also continuing to align with Moscow.

But the tide may be turning for Xi. Russian forces are making advances around Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, seizing momentum before Ukrainian forces can be resupplied by billions of dollars in arms from the United States. Both Ukrainian and U.S. officials have warned of dire consequences if Ukrainian forces continue to be outmanned and outgunned.

“The more the war in Ukraine veers in Moscow’s direction, the more Xi sees China’s backing of Russia as validated,” Blanchette said.

Meanwhile, the threat of European tariffs on Chinese electric vehicles, a major concern for Beijing, may have lessened this past week after Olaf Scholz, the German chancellor, and Ulf Kristersson, the Swedish prime minister, warned against following the United States in imposing duties on the Chinese automobiles. Kristersson said it was “bad to dismantle global trade,” highlighting the divisions within Europe about how to handle China.

“The idea of economic retaliation against China is very scary for many European decision-makers,” said Bachulska of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “There is definitely a mental shift developing in European capitals that China is a strategic rival, but it isn’t necessarily translating into an ability or political willingness to act.”

Xi’s seemingly ironclad backing of Putin, no matter what it might cost China in its relations with the West, points to how his focus on building an authoritarian partnership to counter American economic and ideological might has overshadowed China’s growth agenda, analysts say. This could be a grave and shortsighted miscalculation.

“Xi thinks this is a good trade for China. He’s exchanging a United States he can’t control with an isolated, declining Russia that he can,” wrote Michael Schuman, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.

“The problem is that Xi is exchanging ties to a twenty-five trillion dollar economy with the advanced technology China needs for a two trillion dollar economy that’s not much more than a gas station,” he added. “It’s not a great bargain.”

For the partnership to remain strong, Putin will have to stay in power and stave off a humiliating defeat in Ukraine. Xi will probably do as much as he can to back Putin, but he will ultimately be guided only by China’s best interests.

Natasha Kuhrt, a security expert at the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, said Xi was preparing for all outcomes in Ukraine. If Russia wins, he will offer to help reconstruct Ukraine, as outlined in China’s 12-point peace proposal last year, a document widely dismissed in the West for being insincere and focused only on protecting Russian interests.

But if Russia loses, Xi will need to distance himself from Putin to avoid dragging down China’s global status.

“Whatever happens, China will try to make sure it is pole position,” Kuhrt said. “If it seems like Russia is going to be defeated, China will put some distance between itself and Moscow. It doesn’t want to be shackled to a corpse.”

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