Putin should be under no illusion – Xi is not Russia’s knight in shining armour

The three-day visit of Xi Jinping to Russia was packed with action: a crepe and quail meal, photo ops and ceremonial signings. Pomp and circumstance aside, Xi’s visit to Russia did not live up to Putin’s hopes and expectations. As it turns out, the obvious similarities between the two leaders – their autocratic hold on power and their tenuous relationship with the west – do not directly translate into common interests and goals. Xi came and went, making no firm commitments and leaving Putin and his cronies agape with disappointment.

Russian hopes for this visit could not have been any higher. Russia looks to China, the only major power that has not condemned the invasion of Ukraine, as its economic bondsman, a potential weapons supplier and a “peace” advocate. From the first days of the invasion, Russian intellectuals and opinion leaders have prominently featured China as a key player that would help Russia win the war. China would jump in to substitute the lost western exports, provide Russia with much needed military equipment and supplies, and help negotiate peace on Russia’s terms. What was always missing from these accounts, however, is China’s motivation.

Putin’s reality is that, despite much rhetoric of a mutually beneficial relationship and shared goals, Russia has very little to offer China. The restructuring of western energy imports leaves China among the few willing buyers of Russian oil and gas, which allows China to dictate the terms of trade. The market opportunities Russia has to offer, meanwhile, dwarf in comparison to the European and US markets. Russia is asking a lot from China, but it is China that has all the leverage in this relationship.

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Despite the poetics, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine offers China little insight into the west’s military strategy for defending Taiwan, a long-term western protege that China claims as its own territory. Ukraine and Taiwan couldn’t be less similar in their topology: Ukraine is largely plains and shares a long land border with its attacker, whereas attacking Taiwan would require amphibious manoeuvres and a water landing.

Beyond the geographical differences, Ukraine and Taiwan have qualitatively different security relationships with the west and the US. Biden’s reiterated assurances that the US will not directly intervene to support Ukraine, before and during the invasion, are in stark contrast with his rather unequivocal commitment to defending Taiwan.

The much emphasised point regarding Russia and China’s “shared interests” is equally flawed. It is true that, like Russia, China has long resented US hegemony and the so-called liberal rules-based international order. Both countries, under their current leaderships, have been vying for a greater say in global economic and security decision-making. Putin, however, mistakes this similarity in foreign policy goals for policy alignment.

Wanting the same thing only induces cooperation if working together maximises the chance of attaining the desired outcome for both parties. The reality, however, is that China has no interest or incentive to help Russia, especially if it can pawn Russia to get a better deal for itself. Both leaders yearn for a multipolar world, but ensuring that Russia gets the proverbial seat at the table is not Xi’s concern.

Xi’s visit to Russia actually had very little to do with Russia. Instead, the visit was a signal to the west. Aggravated by US military presence in the South China Sea and wary of US restrictions on semiconductor and other hi-tech imports to China, Xi is looking to use its ties to Russia for leverage.

By flirting with Putin, Xi is hoping to induce the west to cut back on its military excursions into China’s back yard. By scheduling his arrival days after the ICC’s indictment of Putin as a war criminal, Xi is throwing the gauntlet to the west and its legal institutions. The implicit threat of deepening ties with the Russian leader is intended to induce concessions. Threats, however, only work when there is a probability that the sender will follow through.

Xi is not negotiating with the west from a position of strength. China’s economy is still reeling from three years of the zero-Covid policy and a real-estate crisis. It is vastly dependent on US and European trade, with the US dollar and the euro making up substantial parts of Chinese monetary reserves. Xi is not fool enough to believe Putin’s assurances of the resilience of the Russian economy. Why else is Russia so desperately begging him for a lifeline?

Having closely watched the devastating effects of sanctions on his northern neighbour over the past year, Xi is well aware that his country is not ready to pay the economic price of openly challenging the west. In the absence of a popular mandate, economic growth is the only sure political survival strategy for non-democratic leaders, and Xi is not about to jeopardise his own security to help out Putin.

Related: Western democracy is weaker in this new cold war than it was in the first one | Rafael Behr

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine precipitated a growing realisation in the west that it may be time to loosen its economic dependence on repressive regimes. The time for low-cost electronics and fast fashion may be coming to an end, as western consumers want higher quality, responsibly sourced goods and western companies are able to find other cheaper manufacturing locations. Xi’s feigned rapprochement with Russia is an attempt to reverse these changes and to negotiate more favourable terms for himself.

The west should not take the bait. China may not like the new post-Covid economic realities, but it still much prefers the status quo to further economic decoupling. Contrary to Putin’s false expectations, Xi has no plan of doing anyone’s bidding but his own. He will gladly take Russia’s oil discounts and let Putin build the Power of Siberia 2 pipeline at Russia’s expense. He will happily fill the void in the Russian market and offer Russian consumers a taste of fast fashion, low-cost electronics and even Chinese automobiles. He will squeeze Russia for all it is worth, but when the time and opportunity presents itself he will have no qualms selling out his newly made friend and partner.

Xi is not Putin’s knight in shining armour, or even his friend. Putin has no friends. The visit was all talk and no substance. But, still, let them eat crepes.

  • Olga Chyzh researches political violence and repressive regimes. She is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto