Analysis: As Russia raises Ukraine’s nuclear specter, China looks the other way

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When Russian President Vladimir Putin met Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Uzbekistan last week, the mood was noticeably different from their triumphant meeting in Beijing weeks before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

There was no longer any fanfare of their declared “boundless” friendship on the opening day of the Winter Olympics. Instead, Putin admitted that Beijing had “questions and concerns” about his faltering invasion, in a subtle nod to the limits of China’s support and the growing asymmetry in their relationship.

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In the Chinese reading of the meeting, Xi did not even refer to the much-heralded “strategic partnership” between Beijing and Moscow, noted Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing. It was “the most prudent or most discreet statement in years” issued by Xi about their strategic relationship, Shi said.

The change in tone is not surprising, given Russia’s series of humiliating battlefield defeats, which exposed Putin’s weakness to his friends and enemies. 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.

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Under Xi, China has forged increasingly close ties with Russia. Already facing domestic troubles from a slowing economy and his relentless zero Covid policy, Xi needed a projection of strength, not vulnerability, in his personally endorsed strategic alliance.

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

It is unknown whether Putin discussed his planned escalation with Xi during their latest talks, as it remains an open question whether Putin told Xi about his planned invasion the last time they met in Beijing.

For some Chinese analysts, Putin’s setbacks and the escalation of the war offered China an opportunity to move 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 his escalation of war, his aggression and annexation and his renewed threat of nuclear war,” said Shi of Renmin University.

“China did not want this inattentive friend to fight. What may be his fate on the battlefield is not a manageable business for China.”

But others are more skeptical. Putin’s open admission of Beijing’s doubts does not necessarily indicate a split between the two diplomatic allies; instead, it could be a way for China to gain some diplomatic leeway, especially given how its tacit support for Russia has damaged Beijing’s image in Europe, said Theresa Fallon, director of the Center for Russian Studies Europe Asia in Brussels.

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

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

The two authoritarian powers are strategically aligned in their attempt to counterbalance the West. Both leaders share a deep suspicion and hostility towards the United States, which it believes is committed to keeping China and Russia in check. They also share a vision for a new world order — one that better accommodates the interests of their nations and is no longer dominated by the West.

Days after the Xi-Putin meeting, Russia’s Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev and China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi held security talks in southern China’s Fujian province, vowing to “implement the consensus.” ” achieved by its leaders, deepen its strategic coordination and 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 we’ve seen a big schism open up between Russia and China,” said Brian Hart, a fellow of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“I see this as a continuation of China trying to walk its very fine line towards Russia and make sure it continues to support Russia as far as possible without infringing on 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 presented a lifeline for Russia’s battered economy, increasing purchases of fuel and energy — at a bargain price.

Chinese imports of Russian coal in August rose 57% from the same period last year, hitting a five-year high; its crude oil imports also increased by 28% year-on-year.

After Putin called up army reservists to join the war in Ukraine, Beijing continued to walk the fine line, reiterating its long-standing position of dialogue to resolve the conflict.

When asked about Russia’s possible use of nuclear weapons at a news conference on Wednesday, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson evaded the question.

“China’s position on the Ukraine crisis has been consistent and clear,” said spokesman Wang Wenbin. “We urge the relevant parties to reach a ceasefire through dialogue and negotiation and find a solution that accommodates the legitimate security concerns of all parties as quickly as possible.”

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

But this “unbiased position” was reported on the evening news on Chinese state broadcaster CCTV, the most-watched news program in China.

After a terse report on Putin’s “partial mobilisation” — without any mention of the protests in Russia or international condemnations, the show quoted an international observer directly blaming the US for “continuing to fuel the conflict between Russia and Ukraine”.

“The conflict between Russia and Ukraine must be resolved through dialogue. But the US continues to supply weapons to Ukraine, which makes it impossible to end the conflict and makes the situation worse,” said a former national defense adviser in Timor-Leste.

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

The comments are in line with the Russian narrative that Chinese officials and state media have been busy promoting in recent months — that the US instigated the war by expanding the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to Russia’s doorstep, forcing Moscow to stay put. cornered.

The main factor driving the strategic alignment between Russia and China is the perception of threats from the United States, Hart told CSIS.

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

Source: CNN Brasil

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