A deterrence to some nations is provocation to others. The world is divided and the US competition with both China and Russia is seeing a surge. Flouting international principles, Russia, one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, opted for aggression against Ukraine, citing increasing foreign influence in its sphere of influence.
Amid this, the United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterrus is laying stress on the importance of multilateralism and globalization for global stability and prosperity. Despite a large majority of the UN General Assembly adopting a resolution calling for an immediate withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine in February 2023, we continue to live amid ‘widespread death, destruction and displacement’. President Xi Jingping’s visit to Moscow and talks with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin is the 40th in-person engagement between the two in the last decade. This friendship between Beijing and Moscow is to a greater extent political in words than realpolitik in deeds. In international relations, all correlation has precincts and is grounded on strategic national interests.
Xi’s visit comes when the West nods to reduce Russia’s military capability and economic condition to a certain brink is being taken as one of the objectives to minimize Russia’s provocations and President Putin’s mistrust. China is challenging this with lethal assistance to Moscow to exasperate the US, North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and the European Union (EU). China is performing a title role resembling the role that the US played throughout the Cold War to position China and Russia in separate races, pursuing their interests even if ideologically inclined. But the geostrategic environment and strategic interests were very dissimilar back then.
XI’s visit to Russia came with China-brokered historic deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which offered an important peace-building opportunity for the two countries deep-seated in their doctrines, tangled in history and pursued via proxies across the Middle East. The reestablishment of diplomatic ties between Tehran and Riyadh after seven years of bitter resentment has highlighted China’s role as a global truce-broker. This reflects China’s willingness to leverage economic clout in third-party negotiations, rejecting former reformist Deng Xiaoping’s non-interventionist mantra (hide your strengths and bide your time). Two, it marks the beginning of China’s expansion with probability of geostrategic alteration in the Persian Gulf in search for a new Middle East security order. Lastly, the viability of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS) and Shanghai Cooperation Organisation SCO growth will be a serious challenge to the US-led world order.
Against this backdrop comes Xi’s call for the Central Asian nations’ first summit, right after his return from Moscow. This shows China’s willingness to engage all countries in the region regardless of their association with one bloc or the other.
Takeaway of XI’s visit
Xi’s Moscow visit resulted in strengthening of bilateral ties covering diverse facets like the economy, trade, technology and energy, highlighting Beijing’s desire to stick to globalization, multilateralism and internationalism.
China came with more of a peace proposal than a position for peace. There was little support in Eurasia and Europe amid Kyiv’s mention of the “new geopolitical realities” of Ukrainian lands occupied by Moscow. Ukraine declined the proposal and reiterated that Russian forces should pull out in accordance with the norms of international law and the UN charter.
Resolving the conflict, though talked about, was not included in the proposal. The main focus was on building a new world order and alignment against the US as a major threat by promoting “multipolar world” and on working together to “safeguard the international system—the UN” with a recognition that global power dynamics are shifting with a declining West and an ascending China. Xi said during the goodbye handshake “Together, we should push forward these changes that have not happened for 100 years. Take care”.
Developing military trust and defense ties to counter the strengthening of NATO with the Indo-Pacific nations, and activities of QUAD and AUKUS would undermine regional peace and stability in Asia.
On the economy and energy buildup, with little choices other than to accept Chinese offers, Moscow voiced its keenness to support Chinese businesses replacing western enterprises, energy partnership and cooperation in advancing projects in oil, gas, coal, electricity and nuclear energy with “new network supply chains” also through Mongolia. Both nations have profited with bilateral trade upsurge that accounts for almost a third of all Russian exports and Moscow’s emergence as China’s top oil supplier. Notably, the two countries have agreed to seek to increase their use of the local currency yuan rather than the US dollar for cross-border trade, including in oil and gas.
Amid the emergence of blocs in the context of the Ukraine war, China’s regional neighbor Japan threw support behind Kyiv.
Visits to rival capitals
Recent visits of President Xi and Japanese PM Fumio Kishida have strategic implications in foreign policy and the region, given that they represent the world’s second and third largest economies. These visits come barely a month after Sino-Japan security talks in Tokyo. While Beijing is concerned about Japan’s military buildup, Tokyo is also critical of China’s military ties with Russia.
While forging the ‘blueprint for China-Russia coordination’, Xi’s 12-point paper presented to Putin is a guideline or a position rather than a proposal. Putin praised the peace proposal, while Ukraine’s allies rejected it. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the “world should not be fooled” by a potential Sino-Russian peace plan that would ‘freeze’ in place the territories seized by Russian forces. The other focal issue was calling on the partners and counterparts in third countries to use the yuan as an alternative to the American dollar for mutual trade. Putin said, “we are in favor of using the Chinese yuan for trade between Russia and other countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America”. Reading between the lines, China appears bent on ‘soft power’ projection and has reinforced its dominance over Russia and as a beneficiary economically securing comprehensive trade agreements with cheap energy resources. In return, Putin has secured the much-needed patronage over Ukraine and just received a warrant from the International Criminal Court. Though the Chinese claim to be neutral, they are leaning more toward Russia as “great neighboring powers” against the west and appear determined to strengthen their global influence.
Coinciding with Xi’s Russia visit came Kishida’s visit to Ukraine. He is the first head of government of the G7 grouping to visit a country in conflict since World War II. Kishida’s visit to Kyiv and Bucha, where hundreds of civilians were killed by Russian forces, was meant to “show respect to the courage and patience of the Ukrainian people who are standing up to defend their homeland… and show solidarity and unwavering support”. Japan has contributed over $7bn to Ukraine and accepted over 2,000 displaced Ukrainians.
In New Delhi, while inviting PM Modi to attend the G7 meet in May, Kishida called for developing and Global South countries to raise their voices to defend the rules-based international order, help stop Russian war and action plans for a new Indo-Pacific initiative for a greater security and economic cooperation aimed at countering China’s influence in the region. As part of Japan’s new national security strategy adopted in December, 2022, it includes the use of development aid more strategically in support of like-minded emerging economies and infrastructure cooperation. In the defense realm, it includes deployment of long-range cruise missiles to strengthen its strike-back capability, support for maritime security and a provision of coast guard patrol boats and equipment.
The visit has four subtexts. One, the Asian powers in Europe’s conflict signify the importance of globalization in addition to echoing the linkages between European and Asian democracies and autocracies having geostrategic significance. Predicaments are well-observed in Taiwan, which is in the close vicinity of Japan, which recently held a summit with South Korea in more than a decade to normalize ties and forge a united front against North Korea. Two, Japan’s reassurance of its backing to the strategic ally (the US) and the West’s appeals in the context of this geopolitical turmoil. Third is the prevailing competition between China and Japan in East Asia leading to the uncertainty of neutrality and re-alignment when the global powers focus in the Indo-Pacific Region. Fourth is the reconstruction and humanitarian aid with ‘absolute rejection of Russia’s one-sided change to the status quo by invasion and force’.
To conclude, it is an economic and image buildup to China. Xi brushed off Western criticism of his growing ties with Putin: “It is China’s strategic choice and will not change due to a temporary incident.” Chinese state media also reported, “Consolidating and developing China-Russia relations is China’s strategic choice made on the basis of its fundamental interests”.
The Xi-Putin summit did not produce a clear pathway on settling the Ukraine crisis as there was no confession that Russian invasion and military actions created the grounds for enduring violence and humanitarian crisis.
Firstly, the summit was part of ongoing efforts to advance a world order that counters Washington’s democratic allies, building on mistrust toward the US. Remarkably, China refused to join the blockade against Russia, providing Moscow with diplomatic, political and economic support instead. Secondly, Moscow is more isolated at the global stage and feeling the pain of sanctions while China is more likely to augment its global impression than truly safeguarding an arrangement to end the war as an impartial peace broker. Lastly, China will use this occasion to secure its position in Central Asia, Russia’s sphere of influence, to weaken Russia’s ties with India, one of China’s key rivals in South Asia. But it will, most likely, fail to move the needle when it comes to ending the war.
The West and Russia with China are turning the war in Ukraine into a global contest, the aftermath of which will determine who gets to set the global political and economic rules for the coming decades.
The author is a Strategic Analyst, Major General (Retd) of the Nepali Army, and is associated with Rangsit University, Thailand