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By embracing Putin, Xi defies the U.S. and exploits a global divide

By Lily Kuo Washington Post

As Chinese leader Xi Jinping said goodbye to his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin after his lavish state visit, he borrowed a line from a late-19th-century Chinese general lamenting the changes wrought on the world by Western powers that would eventually bring down the Qing Dynasty.

“This is part of great changes unseen in a century,” Xi said. A pet phrase of his, the line is used at home to market his foreign policy strategy to counter pressure from the West. In Moscow, as he grasped Putin’s hand, he added a second part: “Let’s push it forward together.”

On his three-day visit to Russia that concluded Wednesday, Xi doubled down on Beijing’s message of support for Putin, whom he sees as a necessary, if unpredictable, partner in a bigger plan to thwart U.S. efforts to dominate a unipolar world. In a potential clash between liberal democracies and autocracies, Xi wants to keep Russia, China’s most important and powerful partner, on his side.

“Only by consolidating its relationship with Russia can China have the leverage to deal with the U.S.,” said Zhao Minghao, a professor at the Institute of International Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai. “China sees that the United States wants to engage in long-term competition. China must prevent anti-China sentiment in Moscow and the chance of any backstabbing by Russia.”

For Xi, the relationship has taken on new urgency as Beijing’s ties with Washington crater over Ukraine, threats on Taiwan, trade and tech competition, and, most recently, alleged espionage via a high-altitude balloon. It is also key to Chinese efforts to win support from non-Western countries to offset what it sees as an emerging anti-China coalition led by the United States.

The current China-Russia partnership dates back to the 1990s, when the two repaired ties after decades of border conflicts and ideological disputes to form a united front in a post-Cold War world order dominated by the United States. The relationship evolved as China’s stature grew.

Xi and Putin, who refer to each other as “dear friend,” are believed to show each other more respect than they pay other leaders; Xi’s trip was his first foreign visit after being reappointed as president in March. Putin, admiring China’s economic development, admitted Tuesday that he was “a bit envious.”

During the visit, the two leaders pledged to expand economic ties, deepen strategic cooperation and continue building a “new paradigm” in international relations. In a sign that the summit was more about shoring up Sino-Russian ties, the two made no visible progress on any proposals for ending the war in Ukraine.

Instead, they reminisced over their 40 in-person meetings over the past decade, shared meals – including Xi’s favorite Russian ice cream – and lavished praise on each other for their “strong leadership” leading their respective countries to national rejuvenation.

The visit, which Beijing called a “trip of friendship, cooperation and peace,” was also aimed at audiences beyond China, the United States and Russia – to developing countries sympathetic to the idea of a world order free of U.S. dominance.

In a news conference where neither took questions, Xi said that China-Russia relations “go far beyond the bilateral scope” and are “crucial to the world and the future of mankind.”

In separate editorials published in Chinese and Russian state media, Xi hailed their mutual campaigns to resist “damaging acts of hegemony, domination and bullying.”

“The United States and Europe are not Beijing’s intended target for these messages,” said Ryan Hass, a former U.S. diplomat to China now at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “Beijing is working to land these points in the developing world, where it is working to position itself as the leader and leading voice of the Global South.”

Images of Putin shaking hands with Xi just days after the International Criminal Court issued a warrant for his arrest for alleged war crimes also sent a potent message.

“It shows Xi Jinping is not intimidated by the West and also shows he’s not particularly impressed by international judicial institutions like the ICC,” said Thomas Eder, an analyst focusing on China-Russia relations at the Austrian Institute for International Affairs. “It also shows that he sticks with his partners and he has their back. This doesn’t only apply to Russia but everyone in the Global South.”

Still, China has a balancing act to play so as to gain or keep the support of countries, especially those in Europe, that are critical of Russia’s actions. Beijing’s February position paper on resolving the Ukraine war with a cease-fire has been billed as a “peace proposal” despite its lack of concrete measures.

And while the plan has been criticized for not calling for a withdrawal of Russian troops, it presents China as a mediator and responsible power calling for restraint.

“Beijing really wants to say, ‘We are not the West. We do not pour oil on the fire. We do not create wars,’ ” Eder said. “Indirectly, they also want to say, ‘We are not Russia.’ ”

While Xi and Putin’s proclamation of a “new chapter” in their cooperation is evidence that Beijing’s support of Moscow is a long-term policy, there may be some signs that it is not unconditional. In February of 2022, just before Russia invaded Ukraine, the two issued a joint statement declaring their “no limits” partnership. Yet the term “no limits” did not come up in the joint statements just signed in Moscow.

In December, Fu Cong, the new Chinese ambassador to the European Union, said in an interview with the South China Morning Post that people should not “read too much into this,” noting that Beijing’s relationship with the E.U. could be described similarly.

Chinese experts also stress that there are limits to the partnership, not least because Beijing says that it does not have binding military allies – it has “partners.” China has categorically rejected U.S. allegations that it is considering providing military support to Russia, and there is no mention of such in the statements signed by Xi and Putin at the end of the visit.

“One of the major signals from this summit is that China has rejected Putin’s request to provide military equipment, weapons and military capabilities,” said Zhu Feng, executive dean of the Institute for International Studies at Nanjing University. “Even if China did so secretly, it’s impossible that the United States and the world would not find out.”

The message Xi sent while in Moscow was clear, he said: “China will join Russia in opposing U.S. hegemony, but China will not support or help Putin’s government to continue this war. This war is also a disaster for China.”