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But Xi and Putin have their own hopes and agendas for this week’s visit.
We know that Xi will bring a message of solidarity with Moscow and that Putin will want the support to continue. But beyond this, what exactly do the two leaders want from the relationship — a year and a month later?
What Putin wants
This much we know — or can surmise with some confidence:
Certainly there are significant weapons systems China could provide — from artillery shells to weaponized drones — and Beijing might make the case that if NATO can send sophisticated military aid to Ukraine, then there should be no objection to its stepping in to assist Russia. Last week, China’s new foreign minister, Qin Gang, offered another analogy: “Why does the U.S. ask China not to provide weapons to Russia while it keeps selling arms to Taiwan?”
But arms shipments to Moscow would pose several potential problems for Beijing: If they were done publicly and visibly, they would insert China in a proxy war with NATO, they would complicate China’s posture as a constructive and unbiased mediator, and Xi might also have worries about how the weapons would be used. That ICC warrant for Putin may carry largely symbolic value, given that Russia isn’t a member of the court, but China surely knows what Russia has done with its heavy weaponry to date. And whatever Xi thinks of the court or his “no-limits” friendship, he may not wish to have Chinese weaponry associated with such actions.
That said, the two countries have gone ahead with joint military exercises — including one held with South Africa in the Indian Ocean on the anniversary of the war. Putin will be happy for that military partnership to continue.
Lastly, Putin would like Xi to push exactly the sort of peace proposal Beijing put forth a month ago, on the anniversary of the invasion. While there may be ambiguity read into the first of the peace plan’s 12 points (“respecting the sovereignty of all countries” can be taken as a recognition of the Ukrainian position), the rest is a document that tilts in Russia’s favor. A negotiated ceasefire that freezes in place Russian battlefield gains and lifts sanctions? That’s a settlement Putin might have written himself.
A wish list for China
This side of the equation is trickier — and not only because it’s often more difficult to read China’s aims. But given all the ways in which Xi has helped Russia in the last year, it stands to reason that he has come to Moscow with a wish list of his own — if not a list of demands.
Some of the items may be flipsides of the Putin “wish list”; the joint military exercises hold value for Beijing as well, and getting Russian oil at the currently discounted prices is a clear win for China. On the geopolitical stage, helping Putin helps Xi in his campaign against U.S. and Western influence.
All that said, there are tripwires for Xi here. China’s stance has caused friction with the European Union at a time when Beijing was hoping for better relations with the EU. Meanwhile, it’s safe to say that Xi would like Putin to pursue the “military operation” with less brutality. Russian massacres and the shelling of civilian targets make it harder for Beijing to continue to lay the blame for the war at NATO’s feet, or to argue that the U.S. and its allies are the bullies here. Xi has repeatedly stated that nuclear weapons must never be used — a clear message to Putin — and when the two leaders last met, it appeared Xi had raised other concerns, if only from these few words from the Russian leader, with Xi at his side: “We understand your questions and concerns in this regard.”
Longer-term, Xi may ask Putin for military technology and support for whatever future moves China makes against Taiwan.
More broadly, if perhaps cynically, you might say China wants a Nobel Peace Prize for Xi. Or at least the recognition and accolades that would come were he to have any success in bringing an end to the war.
Whatever these conversations bring, China will likely present all this as evidence that as a brutal war rages in Europe, Xi is the one world leader who has a plan to end it and who is speaking to the warring parties about some sort of deal. Never mind that China’s proposal is flawed and that Xi himself isn’t exactly an honest broker. He has backed nearly every line from the Kremlin since the war began — in particular the claims that NATO is to blame — and he has never condemned Russia’s invasion or even its brutal crimes in Bucha and Mariupol, among other places.
The message: We are the peacemakers. The U.S. and its NATO allies are the ones prolonging the war.
A common bond: We deserve respect
This latter point has animated both men’s public statements over the last year. Back in February 2022, Putin said the Russia-China partnership was an alternative to the American-led “rules-based international order.” Earlier this month, at China’s National People’s Congress where Xi was formally given a third term as president, Xi criticized what he called a U.S.-led campaign of “containment, encirclement and suppression.” And in Putin’s Monday article in China’s People’s Daily, he wrote of the West’s attempts to hold on to “dominance that is slipping away.”
“It is Russian-Chinese relations,” Putin wrote, “that today practically represent the cornerstone of regional, even global stability.”
He’ll get no argument from Xi on that point. It’s the big, long-range item that is on both leaders’ wish lists as they meet this week in Moscow: a world order that grants them the respect and prestige on the global stage that they feel they and their nations deserve. There just may be some smaller, trickier items to sort out first.
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