Analysts Say Xi Trying to ‘Change World Order’
WASHINGTON — Chinese leader Xi Jinping talked about close ties to his “dear friend” Russian President Vladimir Putin during his first visit to Moscow since Russia’s Ukrainian invasion. But while the meeting did establish that the autocratic leaders were committed to a relationship, it wasn’t as steadfast as either might have preferred.
And while Xi came with a 12-point outline for a peace plan, “The expectation that Xi Jinping was going to come to Moscow and that his goal was going to be to somehow actually create peace and resolve the conflict is a bit of a misnomer,” David Shullman, senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Global China Hub, explained at a discussion convened by the think tank.
“What we should get out of this latest visit is a true understanding of the fact that China intends to deepen its relationship with Russia,” he said, adding that Xi’s goals going into the meeting weren’t necessarily about peacemaking.
Instead, there is a distinct sense that China and Russia are banding together to push back against the West.
“They were more about … establishing more alignment with Russia in terms of their joint struggle — as they view it — against the United States … and also putting out there this vision of a new global order and a revisionist approach to international institutions, which China views the U.S. as having unfairly dominated,” he said.
“Putin had — as Xi did — short- and long-term objectives,” Jill Dougherty, an American journalist and academic expert on Russia, explained.
“For Putin, I think number one was to show he had friends. The ICC had [just] issued a warrant for his arrest as a war criminal … and it never hurts to have an international leader come to Moscow.”
“He was seeking diplomatic and political support as well as technical and military support for the war that he is waging in Ukraine; and then finally, I think, seeking a lot of trade agreements to continue that relationship,” Dougherty explained.
Xi’s goals, on the other hand, include keeping the energy trade flowing from Russia as well as burnishing his role as a peacemaker, particularly in the wake of brokering an agreement to reestablish relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
“For both of them there was the almost rhetorical philosophical objective of trying to criticize the unipolar world … [that is], the United States controlling the world and telling the world what to do,” Dougherty said.
And the main audience is the developing global south.
“What Xi Jinping is doing, with regard to the greater narrative that he is trying to create … is [trying to show] that China is the country of peace; China has solutions to a world that is in chaos. And the United States is a country of war that can no longer lead the world,” Shullman said.
Xi’s “peace plan” aims to allow Putin to seek a ceasefire that increases pressure on Ukraine to accept territorial compromise. Washington, meanwhile, warns that China may still provide arms to Russia, or that a ceasefire could give the aggressing nation time to regroup for additional attacks.
“The peace plan is so broad and the details fit [Putin],” Dougherty said, particularly pointing out that the plan does not require Russia to remove its troops from Ukraine.
“It’s pretty much kind of an endorsement, it’s kind of let’s ‘freeze it in place and hope for peace,’” she said. “It’s never going to work. I don’t think anybody truly believes — including Putin —that it would work. But it’s out there. … I don’t think there’s any great hope that it’s realistic, but it works well in a PR way.”
“The ability that China had to get good press about being … this responsible global player, even as they are effectively supporting the Russian war machine in many different ways, has been a key goal for Xi generally, but especially coming out of this visit,” Shullman said.
Even without giving Russia the lethal weapons it seeks, “the way in which China has supported Russia and given it an economic lifeline over the last year … is really significant,” he added.
He described China as displaying “hutzpah” in terms of continuing to support Russia’s war machine in every way short of violating sanctions.
China has stepped in to provide a variety of support as well as credit cards and other consumer goods that Russia couldn’t get due to sanctions imposed by other countries. But despite Russian citizens’ appreciation of this, Dougherty claims there may be some concern and “trepidation about becoming the junior partner.”
“This is not an equal relationship; China is in a stronger position. Xi Jinping is the alpha in the relationship with Putin,” Michael Schuman, nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Global China Hub, said.
This gives China leverage in dealing with Russia as a partner on many fronts. And the nation still holds sway in Ukraine as well.
“Certainly the Ukrainians looked with some trepidation on Xi’s visit to Russia,” John Herbst, senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, said.
“The Ukrainians are very interesting in their approach to China,” he said, adding that while they understand that China is Putin’s ally in this war, they strive to maintain a connection to Beijing while hoping China will reverse its policy of support for Russia.
Since Xi’s visit to Russia, Zelenskyy has also invited China’s leader to visit Ukraine.
“They are not willing to challenge China,” Herbst said. “They’ll leave it to others — to us — to do that.”
Herbst, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine from 2003 to 2006, suggested that Xi’s visit was actually less of a boost for Russia than many believe.
“I think that the last [two weeks] were a very clear setback for both China and Russia’s aims vis-a-vis the global community, including the global south,” he said.
Not only does he believe that had Putin’s indictment by the ICC come before Xi Jinping announced his visit, the Chinese leader might have pulled back, but he said the meeting outlined many differences between Beijing and Moscow.
“Putin did not unreservedly endorse Xi’s peace plan,” Herbst reminded. “Putin’s support was rather tepid. He said it ‘could be the basis’ — now there’s a ringing endorsement if I’ve ever heard one.
“Putin, to anyone who has eyes to see, is revealing his very very aggressive designs,” Herbst said. “And even in the global south where there may be some resentment toward the United States, they are not blind.”
“I think United States’ diplomacy should be more energetic globally,” Herbst said, suggesting a proactive American response to the China-Russian alliance.
“We should understand there are dynamics where we’re simply not going to be popular. … Maybe we are in a battle between authoritarians and a democratic world.”
Schuman agrees that America’s response has to be much more aggressive and targeted at selling the benefits of the current world order, including to the global south.
“The fact is that the U.S. and Europe … actually have a really good story to sell and I think Washington and its allies have to do a better job of selling it,” Schuman said.
“I think the Biden administration has to start seeing this relationship between China and Russia for what it really is — an attempt by the world’s two greatest authoritarian states to actively try to change the world order.”
Kate can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org