Last week, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping met in person for the first time since February 4. When they spoke more than six months ago, the mood appeared rather different.
On that occasion, the two kindred authoritarians produced a Joint Declaration proclaiming a “partnership without limits” and presented the outlines of a formal entente against the West. China and Russia would stand for a multipolar, “democratic” world, not one of overwhelming American and allied power.
Did Xi’s and Putin’s second conversation, on September 15 at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit, change anything?
Xi, Putin stated, had “concerns” about the war in Ukraine, while Xi himself never once mentioned Ukraine. Combined with anecdotal evidence of Xi’s supposed displeasure and Russia’s public rebukes in the SCO, some Western analysts have rapidly concluded that the Sino-Russian entente is off.
This conclusion comes from poor analysis. In fact, Xi’s statement, and its surrounding actions, indicate tacit acceptance of Russia’s war. The Sino-Russian entente flourished, even more so than in February. The West risks being hoodwinked by wishful thinking.
A Sino-Russian split?
Begin with the argument against Sino-Russian cooperation. It identifies early March as a breaking point. Putin informed Xi of his intention to invade at their February 4 meeting. Xi accepted the invasion, although he requested that Russia wait until after February 20, the Winter Olympics’ concluding date. Putin moved four days later.
However, Xi was misled. Putin certainly revealed the full scope of his intentions to Xi, the conquest of Ukraine to the Transnistrian border, its reduction to a nominally sovereign rump state ruled from Lviv, and the remainder’s absorption into a reconstituted Russian empire with the economic, numerical and strategic mass to confront the West directly.
But in the event, Russia’s invasion stalled. It captured Kherson in the war’s first week, and fanned out into the south, surrounding Mariupol and creating a land bridge to Crimea. But the decisive thrust, a daring airdrop at Hostomel Airport to facilitate a dash on Kiev that triggered mass panic and shattered the Ukrainian government, crumbled.
Russia’s subsequent attempts to take Kiev were also checked and ultimately repulsed. Today, Ukraine holds the strategic initiative while Russia’s options evanesce. Russia is weak and cannot finish the job.
Meanwhile, the West has coordinated a sanctions regime, military budgets are rising and the United States’ open support for Taiwan is growing – all because of Putin’s botched war.
Russia’s de facto protectorates in Central Asia – Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and the other post-Soviet republics – are increasingly vocal in their opposition to the invasion: They possess Russian-speaking minorities whose protection the Kremlin could also claim as an excuse to swallow them.
In turn, Xi has his own priorities that cut against Russia’s. Not only has Western unity demonstrated the likely costs of attacking Taiwan, but open support for Russia today would also trigger Western secondary sanctions that would cripple the Chinese economy just as Xi faces the 20th Communist Party Congress, the closest event China has to a high-level election.
After two years of draconian anti-Covid measures and with a metastasizing housing crisis, Xi has no interest in supporting a losing player. The Zhongnanhai will not burn alongside the Kremlin. Xi will snap up Russian oil and gas, but at artificially low prices, reducing the economic benefit the Kremlin receives while forcing it to transact in renminbi.
At most, China will pick the choicest morsels of meat from the Russian imperial carcass. Xi will leave the core, Putin and his siloviki to their fate, and watch as Russia disintegrates.
Proponents of this argument point to three aspects of last week’s Xi-Putin meeting to support their case.
First, Putin admits that Xi has “concerns” about the “special military operation” that he will answer. Second, Putin explicitly mentions his support for China’s position on Taiwan, while Xi does not mention Ukraine. Third, Xi contends that China, along with Russia, can set examples as “responsible global powers.”
In light of Indian, Uzbek and other remarks on the war, this is taken as a veiled indictment of Putin’s aggression. In all, the exchange is read as a stinging rebuke of the Russian position.
The argument’s core premises, then, are that China, for economic and strategic reasons, cannot condone Russian actions and for simple tactical avarice will accept and quietly aid Russia’s collapse.
The revitalized entente
Closer analysis, however, suggests otherwise. All authoritarian regimes lie routinely, but Russia and China are grand masters of deception.
Today’s Russia was born from the ashes of the Soviet empire and is run by a former intelligence officer who knows well the value and techniques of obfuscation. In China, the party-state’s machinery was designed by Zhou Enlai, an intelligence officer, who explicitly created multiple layers of protection that leveraged political and natural languages to confuse the observer. Assessment requires care.
Core premises are the starting point. China has avoided providing Russia with specific goods, namely advanced microchips, electronics and military equipment. In virtually every other respect, the Communist Party of China (CPC) has no qualms about its engagement with the Kremlin: As both the Chinese and Russian readouts explicitly cite, Sino-Russian trade is a core aspect of their relationship, and as the Russian readout cites, those trade volumes are even higher than last year’s.
Insofar as the financials are concerned, the Chinese are happy to continue their economic relationship with Russia.
Xi does not mention Ukraine. But there is a curious difference between the Russian and Chinese readouts. The Russian readout, in which Putin discusses the Ukraine war, includes no Chinese mention of Russian “core interests.” Yet the Chinese readout, which does not mention Ukraine, includes explicit Chinese support for Russia’s “core interests.”
Less than a week ago, Li Zhanshu, the third-ranked member of the CPC Politburo Standing Committee and a Xi confidant whose meeting with Putin prepared the ground for the direct Putin-Xi meeting, spoke directly to the Russian parliament’s major party leaders and provided unequivocal support for the Russian position.
He repeated the CPC’s consistent line that the Ukraine war, or the “situation in Eastern Europe,” is the result of NATO expansion and that the West seeks to impose unipolar hegemony on Russia.
Again, Russia and China together seek a multipolar world. A “responsible power,” as Xi puts it, is deemed so regardless of its territorial aggression – that is beside the point – but because they opposed unipolarity and seek a new Eurasian order.
Indeed, as Xi stated in multiple other bilateral discussions at the SCO Summit, China accepts a “variety of systems” and seeks a world in which these systems can flourish without interference and significant friction.
Of course, all the systems he identified are authoritarian, but they may be ideologically distinct. Russia, like China, is a responsible power because it resists the West’s universal ideology of bourgeois capitalist liberalism and hypocritical humanitarianism.
To be sure, China wishes to avoid Western sanctions. But a mutual sanctions regime would trigger a global economic meltdown for which the West is unprepared. Hence, if China does not violate any clear economic red lines, the CPC can proceed as it pleases.
At the same time, Xi must mollify Russia’s terrified Central Asian protectorates. Their great-power benefactor’s most critical role was not defense against a foreign conqueror but internal deconfliction.
The current dust-up between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, or the aborted coup-cum-color revolution in Kazakhstan earlier this year were frightening reminders to Central Asia’s kleptocrats of their vulnerability.
Hence China refrains from explicit verbal support for the Ukraine war but continues its economic support for Russia.
China sees no gain in a Russian collapse. A fragmented Russia would unleash a refugee wave, destroy the economic links China has so carefully cultivated, destabilize Central Asia and undermine the Belt and Road Initiative’s strategic viability.
Additionally, Turkey has quietly but noticeably husbanded its regional power. It tugs on Central Asia’s cork, Azerbaijan, seeking to elevate it over Russian-allied Armenia and thereby create a trade corridor from the Caspian to the Black Sea through the Caucasus.
If this succeeds, and if Turkey can expand its links with the Central Asian powers, the region threatens to drift away from Russia and China. As Russian power is jeopardized, China would be forced to stabilize the situation to ensure its investments remain viable.
In turn, a partnership with Kazakhstan, for example, a state vocally opposed to the Ukraine war, is ideal cover for a trade pipeline with Russia that includes the valuable electronics Russia lacks for its domestic industry and especially its military-industrial production. Secondary sanctions may be viable, but tertiary sanctions are far more difficult to enforce.
Ultimately, China gains from Russia’s success. A revitalized Russia that conquers Ukraine becomes a viable Eurasian partner against the Western-aligned coalition. A Russia that continuously stirs up trouble in Ukraine is a drag on the West that divides its military attention, undermines its economy and continuously feeds China cheap energy.
China loses little from Russia’s war. Even a defeated Russia that does not collapse does not undermine China. It requires some economic support but in return it provides economic depth against Western sanctions and a willing military partner in a broader Eurasian confrontation.
Interpreting Putin’s reference to Xi’s “concerns” in the traditional manner is a mistake. This is a diplomatic exchange between two authoritarian powers – nothing is as it seems. Rather, the point was to acknowledge that Russia would engage its friends, China foremost among them, not that the CPC or Xi is displeased with Russian actions.
Whatever candid comments either party had were delivered over phone conversations throughout the past six months. Their mutual policies are set and the SCO summit was a complex signaling exercise, not a standard conversation between business partners.
The entente’s future
Xi is not a gambler who backs only the strong horse. Putin is by far his closest international companion, politically and personally.
The two dictators have spoken with each other more often than they have with any other foreign leader. Both are acutely aware of and distressed by the conditions that destroyed the Soviet Union, and share the same goal of overturning the American-backed Eurasian political system and replacing it with a model more amenable to their overlapping and similar political-economic interests. China is not walking away from Russia, far from it.
Rather, the meeting and the readout signaled that Xi and Putin have unity of purpose. China will balance its various considerations but still support Russia diplomatically while leaving the door open for expanded strategic support.
Russia accepts the situation and agrees to diplomatic support for China’s political-territorial claims. Both still seek in concert to create a “fairer” multipolar system that respects and accommodates their authoritarian interests.
The central factor for both Xi and Putin is Russia’s theory of victory. Putin has sketched out for Xi his endgame: From this can be inferred their clear and consistent communications. Xi has accepted it, whatever it may be, as reasonable given the circumstances.
Most likely, Putin has told Xi that, domestically at least, the security services and siloviki remain entirely loyal and there is no chance of collapse. Hence Putin can remain in place to continue the war indefinitely, even fighting it without mobilization by simply lobbing missile after missile at Ukrainian critical infrastructure.
The longer this continues, and the more terrain Russia can hold, the closer it comes to China’s invasion of Taiwan. Putin will fight on for years. Xi will join him, perhaps in years, perhaps in months.
The West must not let wishful thinking deceive it once again. China and Russia stand together. This war will continue indefinitely. It is the West’s task to end its traditional combat phase, limit Russian power and thereby undermine the strength of the Sino-Russian entente. Any other assessment is a delusion.
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