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What Putin and Xi Said (and Didn’t Say) About Ukraine

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What Putin and Xi Said (and Didn’t Say) About Ukraine

The two leaders reaffirmed the “no limits” friendship between China and Russia in their first in-person meeting since 2019 – but they notably danced around the topic of Ukraine.

What Putin and Xi Said (and Didn’t Say) About Ukraine

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin poses for a photo with China’s President Xi Jinping ahead of bilateral talks in Beijing, February 4, 2022.

Credit: Russian Presidential Press and Information Office

On Friday, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russia President Vladimir Putin held their first in-person meeting since 2019. Putin arrived in Beijing to attend the Opening Ceremony of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics (which also took place on Friday). He is one of 25 foreign leaders in Beijing for the Olympics festivities, but only a few (including Putin, as well as Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan) are being accorded one-on-one meetings with Xi.

Xi and Putin have kept up a steady stream of virtual visits, but the COVID-19 pandemic brought their tradition of exchanging visits each year to an abrupt end. The Beijing Olympics provided an opportunity to restart the in-person exchanges that have been a common feature of China-Russia relations under Xi and Putin.

“In a warm and friendly atmosphere, the two Presidents had an in-depth and thorough exchange of views on China-Russia relations and a series of major issues that concern international strategic security and stability,” the readout from China’s Foreign Ministry proclaimed.

Xi had high praise for the state of the relationship, saying, “The two sides have firmly supported each other in defending their core interests, strengthened political and strategic trust, and achieved a new high in two-way trade.”

For those eager to see cracks in the China-Russia bonhomie, Xi had a message: “China and Russia have stayed committed to deepening strategic coordination of mutual support… The two countries have never and will never waver in this choice.”

Likewise, Putin proclaimed that “Russia sees in China the most important strategic partner and a like-minded friend, and hails the Russia-China relationship as an example for international relations in the 21st century.”

The joint statement issued after their meeting made clear what China and Russia have in common. Both see a world moving “towards redistribution of power,” where “the international community is showing a growing demand for the leadership aiming at peaceful and gradual development.” China and Russia intend to fill that demand by providing alternative global leadership for any countries unhappy with the status quo.

The joint statement also carried on the themes of China’s White Paper on democracy, issued in response to the Biden administration’s Summit for Democracy. As U.S. President Joe Biden has made defending democracy a watchword of his administration, China and Russia have responded by attempting to claim the mantle of global democratic leadership. In his meeting with Putin, Xi even congratulated both China and Russia for having “safeguarded the true spirit of democracy.”

The joint statement goes much further. Its first point is a lengthy (re)definition of democracy, culminating in the claim that  “Russia and China as world powers with rich cultural and historical heritage have long-standing traditions of democracy, which rely on thousand-years [sic] of experience of development, broad popular support and consideration of the needs and interests of citizens.” In keeping with its emphasis on local conditions superseding universal values, the statement also rejected the idea that the international community can call out human right abuses in individual states, calling such interventions “the abuse of democratic values.”

While the political aspect of the relationship is sky-high, as usual economic ties are lagging behind. Xi’s to-do list made that clear, pointing out that the “two sides need to implement the Road Map of High-Quality Development of Goods and Services Trade.” China also remains quietly underwhelmed by the lack of progress linking the Belt and Road Initiative with the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union. Russia, meanwhile, continues to list economic cooperation at the very bottom of its to-do list, after emphasizing broader strategic and geopolitical topics.

China and Russia have long struggled to make their economic partnership match their political convergence, repeatedly missing high-level goals for bilateral trade. Trade numbers will face even more headwinds as China transitions to renewable energy – Russia’s top export to China is crude petroleum, with liquefied natural gas occupying a growing share as well. The joint statement mentions cooperation on new energy sources, but at the moment China is far more likely to export renewable energy technologies to Russia than to need Russian inputs for such a transition.

Also looming in the background of China-Russia trade is the possibility of Russian military action against Ukraine, which would likely bring harsh Western sanctions on Moscow. Sanctions on Russia following its annexation of Crimea in 2014 torpedoed Sino-Russian trade, which fell from $90 billion in 2014 to just $64 billion the next year. Since then, both China and Russia have been actively bolstering their ability to operate outside the U.S.-dominated financial system, but they still cannot entirely insulate their bilateral trade from the fallout should the U.S. and Europe heavily penalize Russia.

Xi obliquely alluded to this in calling for China and Russia “to deepen communication on fiscal and financial policies and build up joint resilience against financial risks.” But other than that, he made no mention of a possible conflict in Ukraine.

The readout from the Kremlin made clear that Putin and Xi had discussed “the circumstances surrounding the security guarantees proposed by the Russian Federation.” But even Moscow did not mention Ukraine by name in its account of the meeting.

The joint statement does contain a paragraph that seems to summarize a shared view on Ukraine – but, importantly, does not name the country:

Russia and China stand against attempts by external forces to undermine security and stability in their common adjacent regions, intend to counter interference by outside forces in the internal affairs of sovereign countries under any pretext, oppose colour revolutions, and will increase cooperation in the aforementioned areas.

The vague description, which incorporates long-standing talking points about “interference” and “color revolutions” lets China offer support to Russia without specifically taking a stance supporting Moscow’s position on Ukraine (essentially, that a Western putsch installed a pro-West government in Ukraine, which now must be ousted).

The statement does, however, explicitly “oppose further enlargement of NATO” and any NATO-like “closed bloc structures and opposing camps in the Asia-Pacific region.” But the joint statement goes into far more detail on the Indo-Pacific situation than the crisis in Ukraine. It directly addressing the “negative impact of the United States’ Indo-Pacific strategy,” “strongly condemn[s]” the AUKUS alliance, and even criticizes Japan’s plan to release wastewater from the Fukushima nuclear plant into the ocean. The implication is that China and Russia have more common ground in the Indo-Pacific region than they do in Eastern Europe.

In fact, the joint statement ironically makes clear the uncomfortable position China is in at the moment. The text complains that “some actors” unilaterally “resort to force” in “addressing international issues.” The statement, of course, is referring to the United States, but in another context the same complaint could easily be aimed at Russia’s military buildup along the border with Ukraine.

But while China is not willing to directly say it supports Russia’s military maneuvers in Eastern Europe, it’s crystal clear that Beijing is not going to break with Moscow over a potential conflict in Ukraine. “The new inter-State relations between Russia and China are superior to political and military alliances of the Cold War era,” the joint statement proclaims. “Friendship between the two States has no limits, there are no ‘forbidden’ areas of cooperation…”

Russian officials, unsurprisingly, have been more forward leaning in claiming China’s whole hearted support. According to the Associated Press, ahead of the Putin-Xi meeting, Yuri Ushakov, Putin’s foreign affairs adviser, told reporters that China backs Russia in the current standoff over Ukraine.

“Beijing supports Russia’s demands for security guarantees and shares a view that security of one state can’t be ensured by breaching other county’s security,” AP quoted Ushakov as saying.