Meetings between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin are hardly exceptional events: the Chinese leader’s visit to Moscow this week is the 40th time the two “dear old friends,” as Putin described the relationship, have sat down for a tete-a-tete. Xi has visited his counterpart in Russia eight times since 2010. The agenda for the summit covers the usual ground — expansion of trade agreements, the growing supply of hydrocarbons, boosting cooperation — but on this occasion, with the war in Ukraine having stirred up the global arena and dusted off the weapons of international relations, the meeting between the leaders of two superpowers has the capacity to set the tone in the geopolitical theater.
The Ukraine conflict and all its ramifications — what it implies for the world order, its potential to spread to other regions (read Taiwan), sanctions, the arms escalation, the intense aroma of a new Cold War — are the cornerstone on which the meeting is based. And China appears keen to be viewed by the international community as the necessary mediator for a very elusive truce.
On Monday, the first of a planned three-day visit, Xi told Putin that “voices of peace and reason are constantly gathering” over the Ukraine war, adding, according to the official text of the conversation published by Xinhua news agency: “The majority of countries support easing tensions, advocating reconciliation and talks, and oppose fueling the fire.” Xi also noted that if one looks back on history, “conflicts eventually need to be resolved through dialogue and negotiation.”
It is a notable change of tack from the Chinese leader: in the first face-to-face meeting between the two following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, in Uzbekistan last September, Xi did not even expressly mention the war, according to the official readout. This week, he placed the issue on the table immediately and offered to actively mediate.
What Beijing describes as the “Ukrainian crisis” has handed China the opportunity to offer its own vision of a world in tune with the multiple initiatives launched by Xi, through which he aspires to shape international relations to be more in line with his own needs by offering attractive deals for numerous countries, especially in the Global South, via the Global Development Initiative, the Global Security Initiative and the Global Civilization Initiative. “The world today is going through profound changes unseen in a century,” Xi said in a statement widely published in Russian media before he touched down on Monday. China, he added, has been actively “promoting the common values of humanity, and championing the building of a new type of international relations and a community with a shared future for mankind.”
Xi arrived at the Kremlin with his homework in order. He has just been re-elected as president for an unprecedented third term and brought with him a 12-point road map to promote a “political agreement” between Moscow and Kyiv — China has avoided officially describing it is a “peace plan,” just as it avoids terming the Kremlin’s invasion as a “war.” The Chinese president also landed in Moscow with a certain aura of international peace broker, having succeeded in formulating an agreement for Saudi Arabia and Iran to resume diplomatic relations, which were severed in 2016. Xi’s direct influence in the thaw between regional antagonists is palpable: Riyadh and Tehran sealed the pact in China a couple of weeks ago, with a three-way signature also bearing the name of Beijing. The rapprochement came after Xi met Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud in December and Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi in February.
In this new context, arising from what Xi often refers to as a period of “turbulence,” Beijing and Moscow have declared their intention to walk hand-in-hand toward a “multipolar world,” synonymous with the decreased influence of Washington and the West. Both leaders have in recent days explicitly denounced what they describe as a policy of “containment” led by the United States.
“China and Russia share the same views against the concept of hegemony, unilateral sanctions, Cold War mentality and bloc confrontation,” notes Xu Poling, director of the Russian Economic Department at the Institute for East European, Russian and Central Asian Studies. In Xu’s opinion, Xi has “multiple agendas, and the call for peace is one of them.” The two countries have established an annual visit between their heads of state — at the previous one in Beijing, three weeks before the invasion of Ukraine, Moscow and Beijing professed their unconditional friendship — and the bilateral relationship is a matter of “diplomatic priority for China for many historical reasons,” Xu says.
In the analyst’s opinion, despite Beijing’s attempt to guide Putin to the negotiating table, it is “probable” that the war will continue. However, he highlights the economic damage the conflict is causing in Beijing. As the war escalates, China has been forced to choose a side and has been dragged into “dissociation” and “bloc confrontation,” Xu says, suffering under Washington-led initiatives such as the blockade on the supply of semiconductors and the deterioration of the economic and commercial environment.
Meanwhile, the European Union, the United States and NATO view the development of this friendship between a country that the Atlantic Alliance considers a “threat” (Russia) and another that is trying to “subvert the rules-based international order” (China), according to NATO’s most recent strategic concept. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has also registered his skepticism: “The world should not be fooled by any tactical move by Russia, supported by China or any other country, to freeze the war on its own terms,” he said on Monday.
The West, however, is monitoring the Moscow summit with a sliver of hope: Xi is one of the few world leaders who still has the ability to influence Putin, and he seems to have landed in the Russian capital eager to mediate and make use of his influence.
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