After Xi Jinping became China’s leader back in 2013, his inaugural overseas trip was to Russia, and his return to Moscow on Monday marks his ninth visit in total. Much has changed over the intervening decade—perhaps most significantly that Xi will be expected to shake hands with a suspected war criminal upon arrival, following the International Criminal Court’s issuance of an arrest warrant for Vladimir Putin on Friday.
The charges, which Putin rejects and relate to the alleged forced deportation of Ukrainian children, were announced just hours before the Russian president visited Mariupol—his first trip to occupied Ukraine since the start of the war. Putin may well still have dust from the beleaguered city on his boots when he welcomes Xi, with the two leaders expected to sign “important documents” that will “deepen relations” and solidify economic cooperation, according to Kremlin officials.
Still, the overwhelming impression has been that Xi is heading to Russia with the aim of negotiating a settlement to the Ukraine conflict—a presumption bolstered by China’s remarkable brokering earlier this month of restored ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia, as well as by reports that Xi will also hold a virtual meeting later this week with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, their first direct conversation since Russia invaded more than a year ago.
“My upcoming visit to Russia will be a journey of friendship, cooperation and peace,” Xi wrote in an article for the Kremlin-run Russian Gazette newspaper published Monday. Putin, meanwhile, wrote his own commentary in the Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece the People’s Daily on Sunday that welcomed his “good old friend” Xi to make a “meaningful contribution to the settlement of the crisis.”
However, the likelihood that Xi can somehow persuade both Russia and Ukraine to agree to a truce remains remote. “A ceasefire in the current situation is very difficult—both sides think they can win, they cannot give up,” says Prof. Wang Yiwei, director of the Institute of International Affairs at Renmin University in Beijing. “I don’t expect anything helpful to come out of this visit,” says Sean King, senior vice president of political risk firm Park Strategies.
In fact, it doesn’t look like Ukraine is Xi’s primary focus anyway. Of the more than 1,800 words Xi wrote in the Russian Gazette, “Ukraine” featured just three times in two adjacent paragraphs. He devotes much more space to eulogizing bilateral relations and that bilateral trade soared to $190 billion last year (while glossing over the fact that this was largely as a consequence of evading Western sanctions).
Xi’s focus, says Wang, will be to “manage spillover effects including the food crisis, humanitarian crisis, energy [supply disruptions] and global supply chain connectivity”—matters directly relevant to China’s interests, in other words.
Moreover, Xi will be less inclined to alienate Putin given Russian support is increasingly important geostrategically. Last week’s signing of an enhanced AUKUS security pact between the U.S., U.K., and Australia, which allows the latter to acquire and operate nuclear-powered submarines, has put Xi on the defensive in his own backyard. “AUKUS forces China and Russia to cooperate in a more strategic way,” says Wang.
Alexander Korolev, an expert in China-Russia relations at the University of New South Wales, says that Xi wants to consolidate his alignment with Putin because Russia is China’s only strategic partner that is a great power. “China will need Russia for its impending conflict with the U.S.,” he says. “Xi Jinping cares about China’s interests and problems in the Asia Pacific. He doesn’t care about Ukraine or the war there.”
“It just goes to show that autocrats stick together,” says King.
For Xi, there is also a clear propaganda element. His Russia Gazette article talks up his “new type of international relations and a community with a shared future for mankind”—his pitch to replace existing U.S.-dominated global governance mechanisms with new “multipolar” relations.
As such, the Moscow trip is another opportunity to paint himself as a neutral party and the U.S. in particular as stoking the conflict. “To run the world’s affairs well,” writes Xi, “one must first and foremost run its own affairs well.” To hammer that point home, China also released on Monday its annual “State of Democracy in the United States“ assessment—which, while breathtakingly hypocritical, does point out some undeniable flaws in American governance.
With the entire world—especially developing nations of the Global South—hostage to the inflation and instability wrought by the conflict, Xi will take every chance to paint the U.S. as an aggressor at least as guilty as Putin. And Western cynicism regarding any proposed Chinese attempts to negotiate peace is portrayed as self-serving. “The U.S. saw the Ukraine crisis as a lucrative opportunity,” says the report on the U.S. “Instead of taking any measures conducive to ending hostilities, the U.S. kept fueling the flames and made a huge fortune from the war business including the arms industry and the energy sector.”
Meanwhile, China’s proposals of compromise and dialogue—nebulous as they undoubtedly are—stand in stark contrast to American bickering about the type and quantity of deadly weaponry to dispatch to the frontline. “Increasingly, Western rhetoric about the Ukraine conflict is seen as shrill, increasingly prone to conspiracy theories and misinformation, and warmongering in itself,” writes Chris Devonshire-Ellis, chairman of business consultancy Dezan Shira & Associates, in a briefing note. “The non-Western world increasingly sees this as a desire to continue the conflict—instigated by the West.”
Xi’s visit is a clear example of “balance of power politics 101,” says Korolev. “There is a growing understanding in Beijing that China and the United States are on a collision course. That is not going to change.”
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