Xi’s trip to Moscow didn’t impress the west – but his most important audience is at home
As Xi Jinping returns to Beijing after his first trip to Russia since the start of the war in Ukraine, the contradictory forces that dominate the Chinese leader’s relationship with Moscow are no closer to being resolved. Xi wants to be a strong ally to Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, and a global peacemaker. Both cannot be true.
The red carpet and more – a brass band, Siberian salmon – was rolled out for Xi’s two-day visit to Moscow. Xi and Putin raised a glass to the “deepening of the Russian-Chinese partnership”. As well as shared political and economic interests, the relationship is also characterised to an unusual degree by the personal bond between Xi and Putin. Xi has described the Russian president as his “best friend” and has said that their characters are alike.
It is a relationship that Temur Umarov, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a thinktank, has called a “strategic bromance”.
Related: Despite Xi’s trip to Russia, dialogue between China and Ukraine is still possible
The depth of that personal relationship only strengthens China’s resolve that the war in Ukraine cannot lead to regime change in the Kremlin, an outcome that analysts believe is possible if the war ends on Ukrainian terms.
The personal bond is just one of the reasons why Xi’s claims to be a peacemaker in the conflict have been largely dismissed.
On the first anniversary of the invasion in February, Xi published a 12-point position paper that claimed to offer a way forward for the crisis in Ukraine. However, it did not say that Ukrainian territorial sovereignty should be respected and implicitly blamed Nato for provoking the conflict.
In the official joint statement from their meeting on 21 March, Xi and Putin said: “The Russian side welcomes China’s willingness to play a positive role for the political and diplomatic settlement of the Ukraine crisis and welcomes the constructive proposals set forth in China’s Position on the Political Settlement of the Ukraine Crisis.”
Steve Tsang, the director of the China Institute at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, says: “Putin was so positive about the Chinese peace proposal that the peace proposal cannot go anywhere. To find something acceptable to both sides, China will have to be a genuine, honest broker, which it isn’t.”
There were rumours that Xi would have a call with Volodymyr Zelenskiy, Ukraine’s president, while he was in Russia. Such a call would have at least been a nod to Xi’s claims to be a neutral mediator. But it didn’t materialise.
Zelenskiy has welcomed the opportunity to speak to Xi, which may still happen. On Monday an article in the People’s Daily, the Chinese Communist party’s official newspaper, mentioned Zelenskiy by name for the first time since October 2022, according to the China Media Project, a research organisation. That may be an attempt to signal to a domestic audience that the lines of communication between Xi and Zelenskiy are still open.
Because while Xi may have all but given up on the hope of convincing the west that China is neutral in the Ukraine crisis, at home, and to countries in the global south, he is projecting an image of being a global statesman. The official narrative in China is that the US responds to problems militarily, while China uses dialogue. China can point to the recent restoration of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran, brokered by Beijing, as evidence. On Wednesday, US secretary of state Antony Blinken downplayed the extent of China’s involvement, saying Riyadh and Tehran had already been working to patch things up.
There are signs that this narrative is catching on. Last week an alliance of rebel groups in Myanmar asked for China’s help in defusing the crisis that has ravaged the country since a coup in 2021.
But Xi’s most important audience is the one at home. Unleashed after three years of zero-Covid, which caused widespread economic pain and social dissatisfaction, Xi is now trying to reassert China’s position on the world stage. Having abolished term limits in 2018, Xi is embarking on his third term as China’s leader, a move unseen since the reign of Mao Zedong. “Therefore it is the year in which you’d expect him to leave more of a footprint,” says Tsang. “Since he has messed up the economy domestically, he is trying to reach out on the foreign policy side, which is in some ways a bit easier.”