Analysis | China's reservations about Vladimir Putin | War in Ukraine
Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin pose on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan.
Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping met on September 15, in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. In this legendary city of the ancient “Silk Road” this week took place the annual summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a security group founded under the leadership of China at the beginning of the 21st century.< /p>
In a context where Russia is experiencing difficulties in Ukraine, and where China oscillates between facade neutrality and ambiguous support for Moscow, what do these two heads of state could well have said to each other? In particular, what was Vladimir Putin looking for in Samarkand, faced with the one who is increasingly the other's big brother?
When they met last February at the Beijing Olympics, the two leaders issued a joint statement celebrating the boundless friendship between the two countries. It was exactly 20 days before the start of the famous special military operation in Ukraine.
This operation, as elsewhere in the world, was probably a surprise even in Beijing. And there, contrary to the slogan of the joint declaration, we see precisely a terrain where friendship finds certain limits, certain reservations.
Beyond the multilateral aspect of the SCO, several of whose members are former Soviet republics of Central Asia who have fallen into Beijing's orbit, Putin had a certain idea of what wanted to get to Samarkand. Namely, maximum support from China, while it is weakened, petitioner facing Beijing, reaching out with hope.
By being seen with friends, in front of an international forum from which he has not been excluded, he proves that he is not alone. But the main issue for him is the relationship with China. Beijing replied in essence: Support? Yes, but…
Yes, with reservations. And if we observe, for almost seven months, common elements in Moscow and Beijing on the Ukrainian issue, we do not see a great Russian-Chinese alliance being put in place. Sixty years after the Sino-Soviet conflict, at a reverse time, when the big brother was in Moscow, we remain well below such an alliance.
The convergences are there. These two countries together declare themselves opposed to Western imperialism. They both have a common adversary, if not a common enemy: the United States. In the face of Western sanctions, China economically supports – to a certain extent – Russia in the difficulties it is going through. In particular, by buying more Russian hydrocarbons.
As for Ukraine, China is not neutral as it likes to appear, but its convergence with Russia does not mean that it fully supports Putin's war. Without qualms about the suffering of the Ukrainians – or the Russian soldiers drawn into this galley (something like 80,000 dead and wounded) – she places her pawns and advances her interests.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Iranian counterpart Ebrahim Raissi in Samarkand. Iran will officially join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization next year.
Discourse-wise, Beijing has taken over several elements of Russian propaganda. Namely that this war is fundamentally the fault of NATO and the Americans. That the feeling of encirclement of Russia vis-a-vis the West is legitimate. That the United States is arrogant. That the sanctions are unjustified, etc. Chinese media even picked up fanciful accusations that there are US bioweapons in Ukraine.
Beijing's reservations towards Moscow are real, however. China is not going to come to the aid of Russia in difficulty, in the military sense of the term. And then, even economic solidarity has its limits.
In a statement following his meeting with Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin mentioned that he understands Beijing's questions and concerns.
This simple quote is a form of confession. There is plenty of water in the gas between Moscow and Beijing. The Russian publicly acknowledges that the two aren't quite in tune with what's going on at the moment.
In the respective statements of the Russians and the Chinese, after the tete-a-tete of the two presidents, the explicit allusions to Ukraine all came from the Russian side. While the Chinese side was just speaking in general terms. It was, it should be noted, an informal meeting, on the sidelines of a multilateral summit. Meeting little publicized by the Chinese side, but much more by the Russian side, which is revealing.
President Vladimir Putin and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping in discussion at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Uzbekistan.
For example, Xi Jinping said that his country is ready to work with Russia to assume common responsibility as great powers, to play a leadership role.
Soothing generalities, then a more incisive passage: We need to inject stability and positive energy into a world in the throes of chaos.
< p class="e-p">This Chinese quote is important: Beijing, in international, economic and other relations, keeps talking about the need for stability. However, stability is not exactly what we see at the moment coming from Moscow. Hence the restraint that we feel on the side of Beijing.
Much has been said about China as a rear support for Russia, in the face of the Western economic boycott. What is it really? China has significantly increased its purchases of Russian hydrocarbons since the spring, by 55% compared to 2021, according to the BBC, but at slashed prices and hard-negotiated by the Chinese who take full advantage of it. And with limits on how much it is physically possible to transport (a pipeline in the Far East, plus ships).
It is not possible to completely divert, overnight, the massive flows of Russian hydrocarbons from Europe to Asia. Europeans are rapidly freeing themselves from Russian imports and Moscow is adding to this trend, turning off the gas tap itself.
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China, for example, will it build with Moscow this famous gas pipeline from Siberia to the Chinese Southeast, to pass through Mongolia? In Samarkand, there has been no formal announcement to this effect. Vladimir Putin, on September 7 during an Eastern economic summit in Vladivostok, met with senior Chinese officials, in particular to discuss this hypothetical gas pipeline.
He could not hide a certain impatience in the face of the reservations, even the harshness of the Chinese by declaring: Our Chinese friends are difficult negotiators. Then he corrected himself, adding: Of course, they start from their national interests […], which is natural.
We feel that Beijing maintains a calculated distance from Moscow, no doubt accentuated by the fact that Vladimir Putin's war is not going according to plan, to use an expression from Russian propaganda!
Despite a certain strategic convergence between the two countries, China does not want to be associated too specifically with what is happening in Ukraine. She does not want to stick too closely to Putin when he plays the troublemaker, while China preaches appeasement and stability. A fortiori if he seems to be wearing a loser's hat.
Since the start of the war, Beijing has provided no direct military support to Moscow. No material was sent in this chapter. The Chinese have not circumvented the wall of Western sanctions either, concerned about the possible repercussions of such violations on their own economy.
For example, technologies bought from the West by China could have been resold on the sly to Russia. As far as we know, there were no such secret transactions.
And then the Russian economy is only a tenth of the Chinese economy. There is clearly a big brother and a little brother here.
These two partners, former geopolitical rivals, are now converging in their anti-Western crusade. A common vision, based on a shared hostility to American-led alliances in Asia and Europe, and a deep disdain for Western multiparty democracy.
China's implacable priority is that the West, under American leadership, end up being divided, weakened and that the Chinese thesis of its decadence is gradually confirmed.
Vladimir Putin has worked in the same direction vis-à-vis the European Union, supporting – with generous subsidies – many far-right parties on the Old Continent.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen with President of the Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky, on the occasion of her third visit to kyiv.
In this long-term fight between antagonistic conceptions of politics, freedom and life in society, aimed at destabilizing and dividing the adversary, Russia from the Chinese point of view can be very useful.
In 2022, this does not make China and Russia allies in the strict sense. China would put up with a Russian semi-defeat in Ukraine. Russia could then become a vassal state of China. At best, in the increasingly improbable scenario of a Russian victory, it would be a welcome defeat for the Western powers.
Suffice to say that these two are certainly great friends, as they both say. Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin have seen each other very often, 39 times according to a count by Reuters! But friendship and close association do not necessarily lead to a community of views and interests on all subjects.
We saw it well at the top of Samarkand.