“The world is undergoing important changes,” they said in a joint statement, noting “the transformation of the architecture of global governance and world order.”
More than 200 days later, Xi and Putin will meet again at a regional summit in the city of Samarkand in southeastern Uzbekistan. Much has changed, but not necessarily in the way that China or Russia might have predicted.
Three weeks after Xi’s meeting in Beijing, and just days after the end of the Winter Olympics, Putin launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. He expected a quick victory, but after seven months Russia is far from winning. His forces are exhausted, demoralized and are fleeing the territories they have occupied for months.
And that makes China nervous. Having drawn closer to Moscow under Xi, Beijing has a direct interest in the outcome of the war. A defeated Russia will strengthen the West and become a less useful and reliable asset in China’s great power rivalry with the US. A weakened Moscow could also be less of a distraction to the US, allowing Washington to focus more on Beijing.
C has a fine line to walk on. If he relies too heavily on Russian help, he risks exposing China to Western sanctions and diplomatic retaliation, damaging his own interests. The backlash also comes at a tricky time for Xi, who is only weeks away from running for a third term at the norm-breaking 20th Party Congress.
Already, the two authoritarian powers have never come close to shaping the world order in their favor — if anything, according to experts, Russia’s war against Ukraine served to bolster the resolve of the West.
For Putin, the invasion of Ukraine was probably the first step towards removing Russia from the international order after World War II and after the end of the Cold War.
A quick takeover of Ukraine would deal a painful blow to NATO, expand Moscow’s sphere of influence, and fundamentally shift the balance of power in Europe in favor of Russia.
A Russian victory could also set a dangerous precedent for China, which has promised to “unite” with Taiwan’s self-governing democracy—by force if necessary.
Under Xi, Beijing is already stepping up military operations around the island. An easy victory for Putin would further bolster Xi’s belief that the West is in decline and serve as a template for an attack on Taiwan, an event with huge consequences that could change the global balance of power.
But Ukraine fought back, and rather than sabotage the US-led order, the invasion revitalized NATO, strengthened transatlantic ties, and unified the West.
While it is still too early to predict the outcome, even the prospect of Russia losing the war is enough to make Beijing alarmed.
While the growing ties between China and Russia are primarily driven by their tensions with the West, they are also driven in part by the close personal relationship between Xi and Putin. In his ten years in office, Xi has met with Putin 38 times — more than twice as many as he has met with any other world leader.
There is no guarantee that Russia, without a strong Putin, will also seek “unlimited” friendship with Beijing; at worst, it could even become friendlier to the West, reinforcing China’s longstanding fears of a US geopolitical encirclement.
Calculation of own benefit
Thus, the question arises how far Beijing is willing to go to ensure that Putin retains control and Russia remains a powerful security and strategic partner against America.
For its part, China abstained from voting against Russia at the UN. He blamed NATO and the US for the war and condemned Western sanctions against Moscow. He also increased economic aid to his neighbour, boosting bilateral trade to record levels.
“China is ready to give Russia some tacit support politically, diplomatically, and to some extent economically, but the bottom line is that it is not going to go out of its way and undermine its other strategic goals in order to support Russia,” Brian Hart said. , Fellow at the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
According to Hart, one area worth keeping an eye on is arms sales. China has long been one of Russia’s largest arms buyers. “I wonder if Russia’s own defense industry is overwhelmed if it would buy weapons from China,” he said.
But even so, China is likely to try to send spare parts or items not on the sanctions list, or send them through convoluted routes that are difficult to trace.
“(Beijing and Moscow) have stated over and over again that they do not intend to create a formal alliance that binds them in a way that goes against their interests. It didn’t work for them during the Sino-Soviet alliance in the 1950s. and I think they really see it as a history lesson,” Hart said.
“I think that China will continue to strengthen relations with Russia only to the extent that it is really in their common interest.”
But even before Russia was defeated on the battlefield, its military aggression against Ukraine and Beijing’s tacit support for Moscow had already alienated some countries outside the western orbit.
As they watch Russian tanks roll into Ukraine, a former Soviet republic, Central Asian leaders in the former Soviet territories are concerned that Russia might encroach on their land as well.
Kazakhstan, in particular, refused to follow Moscow’s line. Ukraine has sent humanitarian aid, and its president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, has publicly refused to recognize Russia-backed breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine, infuriating some Kremlin officials.
China’s refusal to condemn Russia has caused concern among Central Asian countries, said Niva Yau, senior fellow at the OSCE Academy, a foreign policy think tank in Kyrgyzstan.
“China is at odds with the countries of the region because it still looks at Russia’s war in Ukraine from this anti-Western perspective — as if it is about to overthrow Western hegemony,” she said.
This could hinder China’s efforts to strengthen ties with its Central Asian neighbors, in which China has invested heavily over two decades, Yau said.
During Xi’s state visit to Kazakhstan on Wednesday – his first overseas trip in almost 1,000 days – the Chinese leader tried to allay those concerns.
“China will always support Kazakhstan in maintaining national independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Xi Tokayev, the president of Kazakhstan, told Chinese state media.
An anti-Western world order?
However, Xi’s trip to Central Asia is not just about showing support for Putin. It is also about strengthening ties in China’s periphery and restoring Beijing’s global influence.
Founded by China in 2001 to fight terrorism and secure its borders, the SCO has been shrouded in relative obscurity for many years. Under Xi, it expanded in size and profile, granting membership to India and Pakistan in 2017. According to Chinese state media reports, after several years on the waiting list as an observer, Iran should become a full member at this summit.
Afghanistan is also an observer, and the Taliban, who seized Kabul after the chaotic US withdrawal last year, are sending a delegation to Samarkand.
But Iran has caused the most alarming signals in the West. Iran, Russia and China have held three joint naval exercises since 2019 amid deepening ties. Now, Iran’s expected entry into the SCO is fueling long-standing fears by some observers that the group is turning into an anti-Western bloc.
But some experts say that in its current state, the SCO is not the ideal platform for China and Russia to promote this anti-Western world order.
As a multilateral organization, the SCO is a much weaker regional bloc compared to the European Union or the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
“In fact, at times there was some tension within the SCO. Russia has tried to advance some of its interests, which do not always coincide with those of China in the region. I don’t think it’s ideally suited to be such a platform for shaping a new world order,” Hart said at CSIS.
Also complicating the picture is the presence of India, which has strong ties to Russia since the Cold War. But Delhi has also seen a sharp deterioration in relations with Beijing over border conflicts and has drawn closer to Washington and its allies in the Indo-Pacific region.
However, Xi will use the SCO summit to show both his country and the world that, despite diplomatic isolation from the West, China still has friends and partners and is ready to take on even more leadership in the world. arena.
But if the war in Ukraine proves to be a major watershed in Russia’s weakening, it could thwart Xi’s plans.
“China doesn’t really have other major powerful partners in the sense that the United States has many allies in Europe and the Indo-Pacific that it can rely on. Hart said.
“I think that’s what Beijing is worried about – that Russia will overexert itself and that could undermine their collective efforts to shape the world order.”