Xi's Moscow trip shows peace in Ukraine isn't China's main concern - SOAS China Institute

//Xi’s Moscow trip shows peace in Ukraine isn’t China’s main concern

Xi’s Moscow trip shows peace in Ukraine isn’t China’s main concern

Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin meeting in Moscow (21 March 2023). ‒ Photo credit: Vladimir Astapkovich, RIA Novosti (Kremlin.ru) / CC BY 4.0)

By Jingdong Yuan | 29 March 2023

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s trip to Moscow this week has been more about reiterating China and Russia’s shared interests, and less about any concrete pathway towards ending the war in Ukraine.


While a joint statement issued by the two countries yesterday said Russia aims to restart peace negotiations as soon as possible, Russian President Vladimir Putin said settling the conflict would only happen “whenever the West and Kyiv are ready for it”.


Indeed, while Russia made note of China’s 12-point peace plan and appreciated Beijing’s good will, no concrete proposal to end the war has emerged in bilateral discussions. Both sides were critical of Western sanctions.


The two countries resolved to further strengthen their “comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination in the new era”.


Economic cooperation has dominated the visit. China has gained significant economic wins as Russia continues to face sanctions and is eager to look for assistance. Moscow welcomes Chinese businesses to replace Western companies that have vacated the Russian market due to sanctions. The two sides will also expand cooperation in the financial sector and in Eurasia.


Xi’s visit is also symbolically significant. This will be the 10th anniversary of his first visit to Russia after assuming the position of China’s president in 2013, and the first since securing an unprecedented third term as president earlier this month.


Resentment over US dominance


China-Russia relations have evolved over the past three decades to become a unique strategic partnership.


The countries’ relationship is firmly anchored in their opposition to the United States’ dominance of the international system. They promote “multipolarity”, the notion of multiple superpowers sharing power in the global arena, as opposed to one. And they’re vehemently opposed to “unilateralism”, the idea of any one country taking action alone without consulting the global community.


They often coordinate their policies on issues ranging from humanitarian intervention to opposing sanctions on North Korea.


The most important pillar of their relationship is cooperation on security and defence, marked by technology transfers and joint military exercises. Russia has historically been a major supplier of arms and military technology to China.

Xi Jinping's visit to Moscow Moscow, Russia (21 March 2023). ‒ Photo credit: Vladimir Astapkovich, RIA Novosti (Kremlin.ru) / CC BY 4.0)

Their economic ties have made rapid progress in recent years, with bilateral trade reaching USD$190 billion (A$283 billion) in 2022.


Several factors explain this. One is the complementary nature of their economic ties. China imports oil and natural gas from Russia, while Russia imports many of its consumer goods from China.


Western sanctions since Russia’s seizure of Crimea in 2014, and jacked up further since the invasion of Ukraine last year, have forced Russia to turn to China to compensate for its economic losses.


This partnership is further cemented by the strong personal friendship between Xi and Putin, who have met more than 40 times.


China’s dilemmas


The quagmire of Russia’s bogged-down invasion of Ukraine presents China with uncomfortable policy dilemmas.


While sharing Russian resentment over US dominance, China is less interested in openly disrupting the international system. It’s much more integrated into the global trade and financial structure. China would risk sanctions if it was to offer explicit economic and military assistance to Russia.


At the same time, Beijing remains reluctant to openly condemn Russian actions and can ill afford to cut off ties, given its growing strategic rivalry with the US.


Washington is further imposing restrictions on technology exports to China, and continues to build up regional security arrangements, from AUKUS to its Quad partnership with Australia, India and Japan. So Beijing would prefer to keep Moscow on its side rather than face the US and the West alone.


These explain why there’s little room for China to play an honest mediator between Ukraine and Russia to end the war.


The recent Iran-Saudi Arabia diplomatic truce brokered by Beijing heightened expectations of Xi’s visit and China’s ambition to play a peacemaker role. But the Ukraine case is vastly different and it’s much more difficult to arrive at any quick solution.


Xi’s reported upcoming virtual meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy will provide another opportunity, but no more promise, for China to demonstrate its credentials as a peacemaker.

Associate Professor Yuan specializes in Asia-Pacific security, Chinese defence and foreign policy, and global and regional arms control and non-proliferation issues. A graduate of the Xi’an Foreign Language University, People’s Republic of China (1982), he received his Ph.D. in political science from Queen’s University in 1995 and has had research and teaching appointments at Queen’s University, York University, the University of Toronto, and the University of British Columbia, where he was a recipient of the prestigious Iaazk Killam Postdoctoral Research Fellowship. He is the co-author of China and India: Cooperation or Conflict? (Boulder and London: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2003) and his publications have appeared in numerous media. He is currently working on a book manuscript on post-Cold War Chinese security policy. Prior to joining CISS, Dr. Yuan served as Director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program, and was Associate Professor of International Policy Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, a graduate school of Middlebury College. In July-August 2009, he was a visiting senior research fellow at the East Asian Institute, National University of Singapore.

The views expressed on this blog are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of the SOAS China Institute.


Originally published by The Conversation on 22 March 2023.


The Conversation