The overall signal is of both sides agreeing to an enduring economic partnership
The three-day visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping to Moscow that ended on Wednesday was keenly watched across the world. This was specially to observe if the “no-limits” partnership pledged last year in Beijing, just days before Russia launched the Ukraine war, would get translated into comprehensive support? A joint statement gave some indication of what had transpired behind the smiles and handholding.
The overall signal is of both sides agreeing to an enduring economic partnership. This implies that more Russian energy would flow to China and more Chinese companies would locate themselves in Russia. The impression is of the two nations tightening their economic hug and, as the New York Times put it, “circling their wagons”. That is an American phrase for a defensive posture to ward off external attacks. By creating an insulated economic biosphere, Russia is strengthening its ability to resist the Western sanctions.
The timing of the visit was not lost on international observers. It immediately followed the Hague-based International Criminal Court’s (ICC) warrants for the arrest of Russian President Vladimir Putin for war crimes. The charges are that the Russia military has abducted Ukrainian children from the occupied areas and transferred them to Russia without parental consent. While there is no easy way to enforce the warrants, it raises an important international question. All members of the ICC are duty-bound to execute the warrant if Mr Putin is in their jurisdiction. However, because India is not a signatory to the ICC treaty, Mr Putin visiting India for the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation or the G-20 summits is safe. While India may correctly plead that it is not under obligation to apprehend Mr Putin, hosting a leader with the charge of war crimes dangling over his head is hardly desirable.
On the other hand, India’s close Asian partner Japan was hardening its stand on the Ukraine war. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida showed up in Kyiv to reiterate support to Ukraine, travelling there directly from New Delhi immediately after his high-profile India visit. Japan had earlier joined the G-7 in imposing sanctions against Russia. To express its unhappiness, Russia flew bombers close to Japanese airspace.
The Sino-Russian joint statement on Wednesday omits any mention of military assistance. President Xi’s visit was preceded by China floating a 12-point proposal for achieving peace in Ukraine. Naturally, there was curiosity to see if China would move it forward after the discussions with Mr Putin at the Kremlin.
The joint statement places the onus on the West, dubbing the United States and its allies as a hindrance to peace. It adds that a “settlement of the Ukraine crisis must respect the reasonable security concerns of every country”. This reflects the Russian grouse that Nato has been pushing the alliance eastwards, intruding into Russia’s security space.
It was also being speculated before the Xi visit that he may also speak to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy after his Moscow discussions. This did not happen. The US reacted by complaining that China could have done much more than issuing anodyne statements that do not reflect the reality that forcible occupation of Ukrainian territory by Russia is at the core of the problem. No peace proposal can work that wants the status quo to be frozen. Ukraine is in fact close to starting its spring offensive to try and recover more of its territory in the east and south. Reuters reported that Russia fired 21 Shahed-136 Iranian drones as Mr Xi slept in Moscow. The Ukrainians called it a “massive air strike”, and Mr Putin thus signalled his strategic independence and contempt for Mr Xi’s peace plan. These attacks continued as Mr Xi prepared to depart from Moscow.
China called the talks with Russia “frank, friendly and rich in results”. Its aim appeared to be to secure a larger economic footprint in Russia, but without upsetting its relations with the West. If military assistance has been promised, it is not reflected in any public document or statement. China has been told by the West that transfer of weapons would breach a “red line”. The Chinese are of course past masters at clandestine military trade, but keeping it hidden would be impossible. Weapons get used in war and leave a trail amidst the debris. Probably to reassure the West, the joint statement reiterates that China and Russia are not forming a bloc nor adopting a confrontational posture. While leaving Moscow, Mr Xi told President Putin: “Now there are changes that haven’t happened in 100 years”. Mr Putin agreed and had Mr Xi in turn add: “Take care of yourself dear friend, please.”
This personal warmth is rare in Mr Xi’s interactions with foreign leaders. He is generally unsmiling and phlegmatic. This should be noted in India as the visit is of high significance for this country. One of the reasons for India keeping its relations with Russia on an even keel is to ensure that Russia does not get over-dependent on China. The visit has created the framework for deepening Russian reliance on China. India is constrained by the need to not offend the Nato powers by visibly expanding its trade with Russia, especially in commodities that may aid its war effort.
The hype which preceded the visit was that President Xi was about to play peacemaker in Ukraine, after building a bridge between Iran and Saudi Arabia. That seems to have been to conceal the real objective. China does not want Mr Putin to get replaced due to military reverses in the Ukraine war. It also may not want Mr Putin to emerge a total victor by getting the Russian occupation of Ukrainian territory frozen through a ceasefire. Russia’s dependence on China will get reduced if a peace process takes off. The present state of play suits the Chinese, where Russia continues leaning on them, allowing a permanent reorientation of
Russia’s energy trade towards China.
The Nato powers recognise this play, but have their own gameplan. The US has announced that transfer of Abrams tanks will be speeded up for delivery by autumn. That seems to be based on the expectation that Ukraine’s spring and summer offensives will recapture more territory which Ukraine will need to defend during the autumn. Wars can take an unpredictable course. The next few weeks will show if the Ukraine can recreate the success it had in rolling back the Russian front last autumn. Any serious peace proposal can only work once both sides realise that more fighting will bring costs way in excess of gains. The Chinese know this too. They are using the interregnum to consolidate its hold over Russia.