Why China may move away from Russia

Since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, various international actors have taken positions for or against Moscow. Among these there is also China, which since last February 24, however, has observed a fluctuating attitude towards Russia. It would be likely to think that Chinese leader Xi Jinping is an ally of his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin based on the “limitless” friendship announced with great fanfare just days before the conflict in Ukraine. But one element has emerged 11 months after the war launched by the Kremlin leader: Xi and Putin are not as close friends as they would like to believe.

To protect personal interests

First of all, the Chinese president, who obtained a surprising third term during the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of China, must manage the consequences of an economy brought to its knees by the national Zero Covid policy, by the war in Ukraine and by the measures implemented by the US administration of Joe Biden to limit the rise of the Asian giant in the technology sector.

Since the outbreak of the pandemic, the Asian giant has seen growth slow down to two zeros in recent years. The sudden lockdowns and restrictions imposed by the anti-virus policy resulted in an economic loss of 17 trillion dollars. It is therefore not surprising the harsh judgment of the World Bank, which recorded a 2.7% drop in the country’s economic growth. And the prospects for 2023 are no better: a 4.3% increase is expected, but it is 0.9 percentage points lower than last June’s growth forecasts.

Xi’s economic concerns, however, are not separated from foreign policy: since the beginning of the pandemic, China has reduced relations with foreign chancelleries, even going so far as to record a relationship with the United States at an all-time low.

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But now the Chinese leader wants to take measures. In Zhongnanhai, the headquarters of the CCP, a discussion is underway to put Xi’s foreign and economic policies on the right track. According to Chinese officials and government advisers quoted by the Financial Times, Beijing is studying measures aimed at improving diplomatic relations and boosting the country’s economy.

From an economic point of view, the Chinese leader aims to restore strong growth to the national economy, improve the lot of hundreds of millions of Chinese rural workers, stabilize the real estate market and support a crisis affecting the finances of dozens of local governments in the country.

As far as the diplomatic aspect is concerned, China’s main objective is to improve relations with some Western countries, in particular with European countries, which have chosen to distance themselves from Beijing because they are accused of not having condemned Moscow for the war in Ukraine.

End of a boundless friendship?

Although in their last meeting in December Xi and Putin agreed to continue strengthening bilateral relations, distrust of the Russian president is growing among the political leaders of the Communist Party. Some CCP officials have revealed to the London newspaper China’s intentions to reorient its foreign policy to distance itself from Russia amid fears of a decline in Moscow’s economy and political power following the disastrous operation in Ukraine.

And there have been harsh comments against the Kremlin leader. “Putin is mad”, is the comment of a Chinese official, who explained how the decision to invade Ukraine “was taken by a small group of people. China – is the reasoning of the anonymous official to the Financial Times – will not must simply follow Russia.”

So China has become Russia’s best supporter

Chinese officials are convinced that the Kremlin’s goals in Ukraine will not be achieved and that Russia will emerge from the war with broken bones, as a “minor power”. However, there is also regret in the Chinese “control rooms” for Moscow’s choice not to inform Beijing of its intention to launch an invasion of Ukraine before Putin orders the attack. A position that contrasts with the impression given by a joint statement by Xi and Putin on February 4, 2022, just 20 days before Russia attacked Ukraine.

In their meeting on February 4 last year, Putin – emerges from the interviews collected by the British newspaper – allegedly informed Xi that Russia “did not rule out adopting all possible measures if separatists from eastern Ukraine attacked Russian territory causing humanitarian disasters “. Russia’s stance has been interpreted by China as a potential signal of limited military engagement, not the invasion Putin has launched against Ukraine.

Therefore, the idea of ​​a unilateral attack by Russia was far from Beijing. Suffice it to say that China had not communicated to Chinese citizens residing in Ukraine to leave the country before the war broke out. And the difficult situation had internal repercussions. Beijing’s intelligence inability to predict the invasion led to the firing of then deputy foreign minister and top Russia expert Le Yucheng.

Closer to Brussels

Beijing, according to statements by Chinese officials al Financial Times, wants to get closer to Brussels. And to do so, it will aim to use its proximity to Moscow to prevent Putin from resorting to the use of nuclear weapons and thus reassure his European counterparts. Another aspect of Beijing’s strategy is its willingness to position itself not only as a potential mediator between Moscow and Kiev, but also as an actor in any post-war effort to rebuild Ukraine.

Sharing borders and visions against the US-led world order: these are the elements that bind Beijing and Moscow. Some analysts wonder when China will distance itself from Russia, while others argue that Xi is not really distancing himself from Putin.

However, the events of the past year have shown that the “limitless” relationship does, indeed, have its limits. It was after the Russian invasion of Ukraine that Xi revised Sino-Russian relations. As Russia’s financial and trade ties with the West crumble under the weight of sanctions, trade with China has replaced some of the lost income. China has also benefited from Russia’s isolation. Beijing has bought Russian gas and oil at a discounted price using the yuan: in this way, the Asian giant has strengthened the value of its currency which aims to become an alternative to the dollar. However, it appears that the People’s Republic has not supplied any weapons or high-tech products to its northern neighbour, despite the press reports. A choice that did not please Moscow, which would have expressed its frustration with the limited Chinese support.

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The war in Ukraine has highlighted the weaknesses of Russia, now estranged from the Western powers. In a climate of isolation, Putin had no choice but to turn to Beijing. And Xi takes advantage of it.

Why China may move away from Russia