Vladimir Putin owes Xi Jinping an apology for bringing a certain aroma of failure with him to their meeting on September 15 in the Uzbek city of Samarkand. The humiliating smear is a consequence of the resounding Russian setbacks in the war against Ukraine that Putin has decided to wage.
Putin's offense is compounded by the timing. In February, on the opening day of the Beijing Winter Olympics, Putin and Xi declared a "boundless" friendship between their two countries. Days later, the Russian leader invaded Ukraine. The recent meeting between Xi and Putin, on the occasion of a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a group of Eurasian powers, took place a month before the most important appointment of Xi's career.
The Communist Party congress, which opens on October 16, is expected to give him power and ideological authority similar to that held by Mao Zedong. Xi goes to that congress with the headwind of a slowing economy and public opinion exhausted by his draconian "covid zero" policies. On his first trip out of China since the pandemic, Xi finds himself sharing the world stage with a leader he has called his "best friend" but now he is seen as brutal, irresponsible and incompetent.
Still, it would be premature to imagine that Russian losses in the Donetsk plains and river valleys will be enough for Xi to reconsider his February decision to publicly align his vision of global security with Putin's. Such a worldview is based on a shared hostility to US-led alliances in Asia and Europe, contempt for Western multiparty democracy, and a demand for a security order that takes into account the "legitimate security interests" of Sovereign states (in Chinese and Russian terminology, submit to large countries).
Putin has time to redeem himself in the eyes of China. For Chinese interests to be promoted, Russia does not need to achieve all its war goals, much less control this or that Ukrainian oblast. China's calculated priority is for the US-led West to end up divided and weakened. China perceives the situation as a long-term game. He continues to hope that Europeans will see "America's war" as responsible for a rise in energy prices that will cause pain to citizens and businesses across their continent, especially after a long, harsh winter.
Throughout the last two weeks of Russian pullbacks, China has maintained an impressive discipline in its messaging. Every night, China Central Television's main news program, Xinwen Lianbo, has repeated the same pattern. With images of rockets being fired and projectiles rising into the sky, it laconically reports Russian Defense Ministry statements that it has struck targets in Ukraine, followed by claims of Ukrainian counter-attacks. The Biden administration is often accused of creating trouble; for example, by shipping new weapons that fatten the profits of US arms manufacturers. Then comes the heart of the story: a long account of Europeans' woes over astronomical fuel prices and gas bills, and how they blame it on US sanctions. The message is presented with texts such as "International opinion: the United States only takes care of itself and Europe is headed for failure."
Propaganda bosses will say that his restrained war reporting is proof of China's neutrality in the fight between Russia and Ukraine. However, that claim to neutrality has never been convincing. Chinese officials have spent months repeating the Russian argument that the United States has provoked the war by expanding NATO to Russia's borders. Chinese diplomats and state media have encouraged and spread Russian disinformation accusing the US military of funding and controlling bioweapons labs in Ukraine. Instead, China has largely ignored Putin's wildest justifications for the invasion; in particular, his distorted historical ramblings about the Ukraine as the eternal homeland of the Russian people before it was torn apart and turned into an artificial state through a "historical and strategic" mistake by Lenin and other Bolshevik leaders.
China's preferred account of the war is that given by Li Zhanshu, the third Communist Party official and chairman of the malleable National People's Congress, during a visit to Russia this month. According to Li, Russia "has not been crushed by the harsh sanctions of the United States and the West, but in a short period of time has achieved stability and shown great resilience." Without fully defending Putin's invasion, Li told Russian lawmakers that his country had been cornered by NATO expansion and had seen his national security threatened; and he added: "Russia took steps that were necessary and China understands that." In Moscow, Li paid a respectful visit to Lenin's former residence, perhaps because Xi's China does not encourage questioning the wisdom of communist "immortals."
Self-interest explains Chinese politics. China denounces US defensive alliances and sanctions because it fears the same instruments will be used to contain it in Asia or to punish an attack on Taiwan. Chinese leaders believe they will win with a draw or a Russian victory in Ukraine, a senior Western official concludes. "Either Russia becomes weaker and China will be stronger in their bilateral partnership, or it can claim victory and that will spell defeat for the West." Either of the two options suits China,
it states. Taking advantage of its semi-isolation, China is buying cheap oil and gas from Russia, and will soon pay more with its non-convertible currency, the yuan. Always wary of its interests, China has avoided openly defying Western sanctions. "Our Chinese friends are tough negotiators," Putin observed days before the meeting with Xi.
For China, Putin's current problems are uncomfortable but manageable. Another thing would be an ignominious defeat of Russia in the Ukraine. For starters, it could unleash regime-threatening chaos in Moscow. Furthermore, if liberal democracies stick together and are willing to put up with the pain to uphold the rules-based order, it would weaken China's pet charge that the West is in decadent decline. Xi wants a fighter as a friend, not a loser.
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Translation: Juan Gabriel López Guix