The complexities of the China-Russia axis were on full display in Beijing this week. Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin’s convening amid the Belt and Road Forum marked the 42nd time the two figures have met since 2013, according to the Kremlin. There was an obvious and powerful symbolism to the meeting: Xi hosted the Russian president despite the latter’s invasion of Ukraine and arrest warrant by the International Criminal Court.
Putin will largely be pleased by the atmospherics of his trip to Beijing. Xi and Putin were often photographed next to one another, suggesting that political ties between Beijing and Moscow remain strong. In one of the summit’s defining images, Putin was literally Xi’s right-hand man as the two figures strode into the Golden Hall in Beijing ahead of other attendees, including Xi’s own wife.
Xi’s hosting of Putin and status as a privileged guest is significant. The Chinese leader knew that the joint appearance would further damage Beijing’s ties with Washington and Brussels, showing he is willing to take risks for his “best and bosom friend.”
Still, Putin likely found parts of the meeting uncomfortable. Beijing sought to discipline Moscow and show that it holds the leverage in the relationship, especially amid negotiations over the Power of Siberia-2 pipeline.
The heads of Russian energy giants Rosneft and Gazprom visited Moscow with Putin but appear to have left China empty-handed. A deal on the proposed Power of Siberia-2 natural gas pipeline was not signed, despite some speculation to the contrary. Worryingly for Putin, however, China’s assertive and seemingly unprecedented use of its newfound renewables capabilities poses major risks for Russian hydrocarbon exports over the long and even medium terms.
In what may be an unprecedented public step in China-Russia relations, Beijing repeatedly asserted its new role as a clean energy superpower vis-à-vis Moscow. Beijing repeatedly raised renewables to Putin, in an apparent effort to demonstrate Russia’s lack of leverage in negotiations over the Power of Siberia-2 pipeline and other hydrocarbons deals.
During Putin’s interview with a Chinese state media outlet, he was very pointedly asked only one question about energy, according to the Kremlin’s full transcript. Moreover, the host’s question specifically concerned only renewable energy, even though Russia’s energy exports nearly exclusively consist of hydrocarbons. The People’s Daily’s readout of the interview doesn’t even mention energy.
Beijing continued to assert its newfound energy power in other venues. At the 5th China-Russia Energy Business Forum, the Chinese representative called on the two sides to expand cooperation in new areas, such as renewables, hydrogen energy, energy storage, and carbon markets. Cooperation will be a decidedly one-way street, however, as Russia has virtually no capabilities or ambitions in these areas. The one clean energy technology where Russia is relevant – nuclear energy – was not even mentioned by the Chinese representative.
Just in case the Russian side didn’t receive the message, Xi’s letter to the Energy Business Forum closed by calling on the two sides to promote the establishment of a global clean energy partnership.
Beijing’s repeated and coordinated messaging on clean energy was very likely a negotiating tactic. By raising its renewables potential over and over again, Beijing likely sought to communicate to Moscow that China has it has a strong negotiating position, especially in the Power of Siberia-2 pipeline talks between the two sides.
To be clear, China’s role in the world energy and climate system is highly ambiguous. It is the world’s largest producer of several clean energy technologies, including not only solar and wind but also electric vehicles. Yet China is also the world’s biggest polluter and burns more coal than the rest of the world combined.
The intersection of these two trends – China’s development of domestic clean energy and its willingness to burn massive amounts of coal – could sharply curtail Chinese energy imports and pose major risks to Russian hydrocarbon exports over the medium and long terms.
The latest Xi-Putin meeting was fairly routine. There is little doubt that Beijing and Moscow currently have strong political ties, but also that China’s development of domestic clean energy resources could complicate the political economy of the relationship. What was surprising, however, was China’s forceful, public, but subtle flexing of its newfound clean energy resources. Russia’s role in the world is shrinking due to its invasion of Ukraine even while China is developing new sources of power, giving it ever greater leverage over its northern neighbor.