While Russia is raising a nuclear specter in Ukraine, China is looking the other way

In the Chinese reading of the meeting, Xi didn’t even mention the much-vaunted “strategic partnership” between Beijing and Moscow, noted Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing. It is “the most circumspect or cautious statement” Xi has made on their strategic relationship in years, Shi said.

The shift in tone is not surprising given Russia’s string of humiliating battlefield defeats that have exposed Putin’s weakness to friends and foes alike. These setbacks also come at a bad time for Xi, who is just weeks away from seeking a norm-breaking third term at a key political meeting.

Under Xi, China has forged ever closer ties with Russia. Already facing domestic problems from a slowing economy and his adamant zero-Covid policy, Xi needed a projection of strength, not vulnerability, in his personally backed strategic alliance.

Six days later, in a desperate escalation of the devastating war, Putin announced in a televised address a “partial mobilization” of Russian citizens, even urging the use of nuclear weapons.

It is not known whether Putin spoke about his planned escalation in their last talks with Xi, nor whether Putin told Xi about his planned invasion at their last meeting in Beijing.

For some Chinese analysts, Putin’s setbacks and the escalation of the war presented China with an opportunity to turn away from Russia — a subtle shift that began with Xi’s meeting with Putin.

“China has no choice but to stay a little further away from Putin because of its escalating war, its aggression and annexation, and its renewed threat of nuclear war,” said Shi of Renmin University.

“China didn’t want this unwary friend to fight. What may be its fate on the battlefield is beyond China’s grasp at all.”

But others are more skeptical. Putin’s open admission of Beijing’s concerns does not necessarily signal a rift between the two diplomatic allies; Instead, it could be a way for China to gain diplomatic space, especially given how its tacit support for Russia has tarnished Beijing’s image in Europe, said Theresa Fallon, director of the Center for Russia-Europe-Asia Studies in Brussels.

“My impression was that Beijing just wanted a bit of daylight between China and Russia, but I think many overinterpreted that,” she said. “I think it was more for a European audience.”

“They need to keep Russia on board for China’s long-term interests,” Fallon added.

The two authoritarian powers are strategically aligned in their attempt to balance the West. Both leaders share a deep distrust and hostility toward the United States, which they believe is bent on holding down China and Russia. They also share a vision for a new world order – a world order that better serves the interests of their nations and is no longer dominated by the West.
Days after the Xi-Putin meeting, Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev and China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi held security talks in southern China’s Fujian Province and vowed to “implement the consensus reached by their leaders,” deepen their strategic coordination and further military cooperation.

The two countries are also looking to deepen economic ties, with bilateral trade expected to reach $200 billion “in the near future,” according to Putin.

“I don’t think there was a major schism between Russia and China,” said Brian Hart, a fellow on the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“I see this as a continuation of China’s attempt to walk its rather fine line with Russia and ensure that it continues to support Russia as much as possible without harming its own interests.”

So far, Beijing has carefully avoided actions that would violate Western sanctions, such as providing direct military aid to Moscow. But it has provided a lifeline for Russia’s struggling economy by stepping up purchases of its fuel and energy — at a bargain price. China’s imports of Russian coal rose 57% in August from the same period last year, hitting a five-year high; Crude oil imports also rose 28% year-on-year.

After Putin called up army reservists to join the war in Ukraine, Beijing has continued to walk a fine line and reiterated its long-held stance on dialogue to resolve the conflict.

When asked about Russia’s possible use of nuclear weapons at a news conference on Wednesday, a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry dodged the question.

“China’s stance on the Ukraine crisis has been consistent and clear,” spokesman Wang Wenbin said. “We call on the relevant parties to reach a truce through dialogue and negotiations and to find a solution as soon as possible that addresses the legitimate security concerns of all parties.”

Also on Wednesday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

According to the Chinese ad, Wang stressed that China will continue to “maintain its objective and impartial position” and “push for peace negotiations on the Ukraine issue.”

But this “impartial position” was betrayed in China’s state broadcaster CCTV’s top evening news program, the most-watched news program in China.

After a succinct report on Putin’s “partial mobilization” – without any mention of the protests in Russia or international condemnations – the program quoted an international observer as blaming the US for “further fueling the conflict between Russia and Ukraine”.

“The conflict between Russia and Ukraine should be resolved through dialogue. But the US continues to supply arms to Ukraine, making it impossible to end the conflict and making the situation worse,” a former national defense adviser was depicted in Timor-Leste as saying.

“The sanctions triggered by the conflict are having an impact around the world… Oil prices in Timor-Leste have also risen sharply. We are also suffering the consequences.”

The comments jibe with the Russian narrative that Chinese officials and state media have been busily promoting in recent months – that the US instigated the war by expanding NATO to Russia’s doorstep and cornering Moscow.

The main factor influencing strategic alignment between Russia and China is the perception of threats from the United States, CSIS’s Hart said.

“As long as this variable remains constant, as long as Beijing continues to worry about the United States, I believe it will continue to strengthen ties with Russia,” he said.