When Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin met in Moscow last month, China sent a cautionary rebuke to Russia about nuclear threats against Ukraine in a clear message to avoid nuclear war.
Putin, who on several occasions had threatened to launch atomic weapons in retaliation against various battlefield escalations, signed onto a no use of nuclear weapons statement in a joint communique.
Or at least he did for a few hours. Among the pledges listed, China and Russia agreed that “All nuclear-weapon states should refrain from deploying nuclear weapons abroad.”
But no sooner had Xi left Moscow than Putin ignored the accord and announced plans to place tactical nuclear arms in Belarus, a neighboring country that could be a staging ground for Russian invasion forces.
China responded quickly. “Under the current circumstances, all sides should focus on diplomatic efforts for a peaceful of the Ukraine crisis and work together for de-escalation,” Mao Ning, a foreign ministry spokesperson, told reporters in Beijing on March 27.
It was an unusually vivid sample of the dissonance underlying aspects of Russia and China’s apparent agreement over Ukraine policy. China, despite its hefty economic and propaganda support for Russia, wants to be seen as a peacemaker, not as a warmonger.
Putin, on the other hand, has declared Ukraine an existential threat to Russia that must be crushed.
In effect, Xi sometimes finds himself walking a tightrope when partnering with Putin. He simultaneously extolls the tightness of the two sides’ “no limits” relations—a welcome diplomatic boost during a war that’s not going Russia’s way – while wanting to keep it within the bounds of his core foreign policies.
In the case of Ukraine, though, even China sometimes has to give in. Take the issue of respect for sovereignty, a cornerstone of China’s expressed foreign policy.
A month before the Moscow summit, China’s foreign ministry issued a 12-point peace plan for Ukraine. In particular, the statement declared that “The sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of all countries must be effectively upheld.”
In Moscow, neither Xi nor Putin spoke of respect for sovereignty; it was a word also missing from their published joint statements.
Consider also Putin’s overall response to China’s peace outline. He publicly indicated that some of the plan was unacceptable, though he didn’t specify which aspects.
“Many of the provisions of the peace plan put forward by China are consonant with Russian approaches and could form a basis for a peaceful settlement,” Putin said.
The Russian leader then added a kind of emergency exit from having to decide: the West and Kiev had to sign on first. (Both Washington and Kiev reject the plan because it doesn’t require the total removal of Russian forces from Ukraine.)
Nonetheless, it is highly unlikely such differences will lead to a China-Russia break-up. Beijing has certainly not prepared the public for such a dramatic change. Its media is full of critiques blaming American hegemony and bullying for causing the war, as do Chinese leaders in their public statements.
“No matter how the US and Europe try to convince China otherwise, in Beijing’s view, the convergence of Chinese and Russian interests in countering the US will outweigh their dig interests, such as the competition for regional leadership and sphere of influence,” wrote Yun Sun, a senior fellow at the Stimson Center, a foreign policy think tank in Washington.
Prior to the Sino-Russian summit, outsiders predicted it would focus on Ukraine. The US government expressed concern that China would announce a willingness to supply arms to Russia at the meeting.
As it turned out, those expectations were wrong. In official accounts, the Ukraine conflict was treated as a second-tier issue.
In opening remarks on March 21, the first day of the summit, Xi made a mention of the crisis, saying China was against “adding fuel to the fire” (a coded reference to the United States) and would continue to seek a “political settlement.”
In a nine-paragraph Chinese Foreign Ministry summary of a press conference on March 24, Ukraine was mentioned only once. Xi said that China had taken an “objective and impartial position” on the issue. Instead, Xi focused on trade, industrial cooperation and “people-to-people” contacts.
Putin said nothing about Ukraine, though the Chinese said he “welcomes China’s willingness to play a constructive role.”
Some observers surmised that Xi is in no hurry to press for the war’s end. The conflict has sapped American military resources—already both the US and Europe are discovering they lack enough ammunition to supply Ukraine – while imposing higher fuel costs on Western economies as China receives Russian oil at below-market, friendship rates.
Moreover, in almost every Western country, some political voices oppose involvement—notably among them, members of the US Republican Party and minority parties in France and Italy.
If China simply sits tight, any outcome—either a disaster for Russia or a Kremlin victory over Ukraine – would likely favor Beijing, wrote Martin Sebena, a researcher for the Central European Institute of Asian Studies, located in Slovakia.
“China can only gain from the war in Ukraine,” Sebena said.
He surmised that a Russian victory would strengthen a China ally “at the expense of the West,” while defeat would leave Russia economically weakened and “tied to China.”
Russia’s war with Ukraine has brought economic benefits to China. Chinese exports to Russia have doubled in the past year. China purchases Russian fossil fuel at cut-rate prices; China has replaced Germany as the largest importer of Russian energy last year.
Putin seems to expect the relationship to last, whatever bumps emerge on the diplomatic road. On March 31, he issued a 42-page foreign policy manifesto that laid out plans to boost ties with countries that oppose Western “dominance.”
He identified China, as well as India, as key potential partners. Rejecting sanctions, India also buys Russian petroleum at a discount and has abstained in United Nations votes to condemn Russia’s invasion. Last year, India increased its oil imports from Russia tenfold.
Putin’s stated goal: “The Russian Federation intends to give priority to the elimination of vestiges of the dominance of the United States and other unfriendly countries in world politics,” the document read.
On those grounds, China has already signed up.