Xi Jinping hugs Vladimir Putin in defiance of the West

Days after returning from a trip to Europe where he was lectured about the need to rein in Russia, China’s leader Xi Jinping used a summit with President Vladimir V. Putin to convey an uncomfortable reality to the West: his support for Putin . remains firm.

Xi’s talks with Putin this week were a show of solidarity between two autocrats fighting Western pressure. The two leaders issued a lengthy statement denouncing what they saw as American interference and intimidation and laying out their alignment with China’s claim to self-governance in Taiwan and Russia’s “legitimate security interests” in Ukraine.

They promised to expand economic and military ties, as highlighted by Putin’s visit to a cutting-edge Chinese defense research institute. Xi even initiated a cheek-to-cheek hug as she said goodbye to Putin on Thursday after an evening stroll through the Chinese Communist Party leadership complex in Beijing.

Western leaders looking for signs of any significant divergence between Xi and Putin, particularly over the war in Ukraine, found none. Neither the risk of alienating Europe, a key trading partner needed to help revive China’s struggling economy, nor the threat of US sanctions against Chinese banks aiding Russia’s war effort appeared to deter Xi from embracing Putin.

“The overall goal of both Putin and Xi is to fight what they perceive as their existential enemy, which is the United States and the US-led international order,” said Alicja Bachulska, an expert on Chinese foreign policy at the European Council. on Foreign Relations. For China, “Yes, there are tensions with the West, but these tensions will not lead to any kind of qualitative change in the way China has been approaching Russia and the war in Ukraine.”

Put another way, analysts said, Xi has already priced potential sanctions and tariffs as an acceptable cost to his strategic partnership with Russia. For Xi, Putin is an indispensable friend who helps reshape the global order in China’s favor. And the more Washington resists (even on trade issues like the latest tariffs on Chinese electric vehicles), the more Xi feels validated about his decisions.

“Moscow’s strategic value to Xi is only strengthening as geopolitical competition with the United States becomes more intense,” said Jude Blanchette, a China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

What is paramount for Xi and Putin is what they call the “democratization of international relations”: essentially the erosion of American dominance and the empowerment of non-aligned countries and rogue states to unite around their common grievances toward the West.

Their joint statement this week laid out their vision for a new global order. It was one in which the North Atlantic Treaty Organization or America’s security alliances in Asia would not interfere with its territorial claims to Ukraine or Taiwan; The United States could not intimidate other countries with sanctions because the dollar would no longer be the world’s reserve currency for trade; and autocracies would have the right to govern “according to their own national conditions,” unhindered by universal values ​​such as human rights and social equality.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has intensified this attempt to reconnect the world. The war has emerged as a way for an axis of anti-Western countries to respond to the United States and its allies. The Russian war machine is bolstered by Chinese semiconductors and other dual-use technologies; by North Korean missiles and projectiles; and by Iranian drones. The war has provided an opportunity for Russia, China, North Korea and Iran to deepen military coordination and evade sanctions by facilitating trade outside the reach of the US-led financial system. That could prove useful in any future conflict with the United States.

Xi may have had “questions and concerns” about the war in Ukraine from the beginning, once it became clear that Russia would not achieve a quick and decisive victory. He was enraged when Putin hinted at the use of tactical nuclear weapons, a red line for China. And he has had the difficult (and some say, contradictory) task of trying to present China as neutral in the war in order to maintain stable ties with the West while still aligning himself with Moscow.

But the situation may be changing for Xi. Russian forces are advancing around Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, building momentum before Ukrainian forces can be resupplied with billions of dollars in weapons from the United States. Both Ukrainian and American officials have warned of dire consequences if Ukrainian forces continue to be outnumbered and outgunned.

“The more the war in Ukraine tilts in Moscow’s direction, the more Xi sees China’s support for Russia as validated,” Blanchette said.

Meanwhile, the threat of European tariffs on Chinese electric vehicles, a major concern for Beijing, may have eased this week after Olaf Scholz, the German chancellor, and Ulf Kristersson, the Swedish prime minister, warned against follow the United States in imposing tariffs on Chinese electric vehicles. Chinese cars. Kristersson said it was “bad to dismantle global trade,” highlighting divisions within Europe over how to handle China.

“The idea of ​​economic retaliation against China is very frightening to many European decision-makers,” said Ms. Bachulska of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “There is definitely a shift in mindset developing in European capitals that China is a strategic rival, but it doesn’t necessarily translate into the ability or political will to act.”

Xi’s seemingly ironclad support for Putin, no matter what it may cost China in its relations with the West, signals how his focus on building an authoritarian partnership to counter American economic and ideological power has overshadowed China’s growth agenda. analysts say. . This could be a serious and short-sighted miscalculation.

“Xi believes this is a good deal for China. “He is trading a United States that he cannot control for an isolated and declining Russia that he can,” wrote Michael Schuman, a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council.

“The problem is that Xi is trading ties with a $25 trillion economy with the advanced technology China needs for a $2 trillion economy that’s not much more than a gas station,” he added. “It’s not much of a bargain.”

For the partnership to remain strong, Putin will have to remain in power and avoid a humiliating defeat in Ukraine. Xi will probably do everything he can to support Putin, but ultimately he will only be guided by China’s best interests.

Natasha Kuhrt, a security expert at the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, said Xi was preparing for all outcomes in Ukraine. If Russia wins, it will offer to help rebuild Ukraine, as outlined in China’s 12-point peace proposal last year, a document widely rejected in the West as insincere and focused only on protecting Russian interests.

But if Russia loses, Xi will have to distance himself from Putin to avoid weakening China’s global status.

“No matter what happens, China will try to make sure it takes first place,” Kuhrt said. “If it looks like Russia is going to be defeated, China will put some distance between itself and Moscow. He does not want to be chained to a corpse.”

Olivia Wang contributed to the research.

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