The forthcoming meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Shanghai Cooperation Group (SCO) summit in Uzbekistan has garnered international attention. Given the complex geopolitical landscape and the recent volatility in global politics, this meeting holds the promise of insights into the dynamics of the China-Russia relationship. In this article, we delve into the implications of this meeting, examining the backdrop of the China-Russia partnership and its role in an increasingly polarized world.
A History of Surprising Alliances
The history of the China-Russia relationship has been characterized by surprises and sudden shifts. Their last face-to-face meeting at the Beijing Winter Olympics in February resulted in the announcement of a partnership “without limits.” However, within three weeks, Putin launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, shaking the foundations of the international order. Given this background, observers are keen to analyze the current state of this partnership during the SCO summit.
A Partner or Opportunist?
While China has expressed support for Russia’s actions in Ukraine, it’s essential to distinguish between rhetorical support and material assistance. Marcin Kaczmarski, a lecturer in security studies, argues that China’s recent actions are largely driven by market forces rather than a surge of state investment, loans, and production capacity aimed at bolstering Russia’s endeavors. The lack of a significant inflow of Chinese funds or direct support has likely surprised Russian leaders.
China’s measured approach to providing aid or assistance to Russia may stem from its desire to avoid triggering secondary Western sanctions, which could have adverse effects on its own economy, already grappling with the zero-COVID policy challenges.
Comparing China’s Actions with India and Turkey
It is worth noting that India and Turkey have significantly increased their Russian oil imports, even as Western nations have imposed sanctions on Russia. India, in particular, has grown its Russian oil imports fivefold over the past year. Turkey, a NATO member, and an EU aspirant, has doubled its Russian oil imports. These actions highlight that India and Turkey are supporting Russia more actively than China during the ongoing conflict.
The Challenge of Ostracizing Russia
The SCO summit presents an opportunity to emphasize the immense challenge facing the West in isolating Russia fully. The ambivalence among some nations in the “Global South” complicates efforts to impose comprehensive sanctions on Russia. Russia’s weapons purchases from North Korea and its recent visit to Iran highlight its increasing isolation, even as China remains central to global supply chains and challenging to exclude.
Xi Jinping’s Calculations
Xi Jinping is unlikely to grandstand his relationship with Putin, as the economic troubles China is facing may make him cautious about exacerbating any potential turbulence. Few anticipate that the “no limits” partnership will be reaffirmed during this meeting. In reality, Xi’s own ambassador to the U.S. has retreated from such rhetoric, emphasizing the primacy of the UN Charter, international law, and basic norms in international relations.
Xi’s Strategy and Nationalist Credentials
Xi may be using the meeting with Putin to bolster his domestic standing as he prepares for a third term in office. By positioning himself as a leader willing to confront Western pressure, particularly amid strained relations with the West on various fronts, he aims to enhance his nationalist credentials.
A Warning to the West: Hands Off Taiwan
Xi might leverage the meeting with Putin to convey a strong message to the West, particularly regarding China’s core concerns, such as the status of Taiwan. Recent U.S. actions, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan and the approval of arms sales to the island, have raised tensions. Xi could use this opportunity to caution the West against crossing China’s red lines, emphasizing that supporting Taiwan independence could elicit more significant support for Russia.
The Xi-Putin meeting at the SCO summit is a complex geopolitical puzzle. While China’s rhetorical support for Russia has been evident, its material assistance has been limited. Observers are carefully watching for any shifts in the China-Russia partnership in the face of global tensions. Additionally, Xi’s motivations for the meeting may extend beyond the China-Russia relationship, seeking to bolster his own image as a resolute leader. Regardless of the outcomes, this meeting highlights the intricate dynamics of international relations and the pivotal role of both China and Russia in shaping the global landscape.