Vladimir Putin’s Ukraine woes strengthen Xi Jinping in ‘no limits’ partnership

Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin’s touted “no limits” partnership has been limited in at least one respect over recent days — public messaging.

At the opening of the Russian and Chinese presidents’ first face-to-face meeting since the Beijing Winter Olympics in February, Putin told Xi on Thursday that he understood Beijing had “questions and concerns” about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, without specifying what these were.

Chinese state media did not carry Putin’s cryptic comment at the meeting in Uzbekistan, where the leaders are attending a regional security forum, and quoted Xi as saying only that the two countries would continue to co-operate closely and support each other’s defence of their “core interests”, without mentioning Ukraine specifically.

Officially, the Chinese government has echoed Russia’s insistence that US-led Nato “encroachment” in Europe was the real trigger for the Ukraine war. Washington, Beijing adds, is therefore responsible for all of the conflict’s consequences, from humanitarian tragedies to food and energy shortages and global inflation.

During a recent visit to Russia, Li Zhanshu, the Chinese Communist party’s third-highest ranking official and head of the National People’s Congress, blamed the US in blunt terms in a video that was released by his Russian counterparts but not carried by Chinese state media.

The divergent messaging does not, however, reflect a significant new fracture in Xi and Putin’s decade-long partnership, analysts said. Russia was the first foreign country Xi visited after assuming power in late 2012, and on Wednesday he addressed Putin as his “dear old friend”.

Zhao Long, a Russia and central Asia expert at the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies, said that many people outside China “have misunderstandings about the so-called no limits Sino-Russian partnership”. 

“This is based on consensus on specific issues — it is not binding, or unlimited, in all fields,” Zhao said. “When any country handles its foreign relations, its first consideration is its own interests, which may lead to areas where bilateral relations need to be fine-tuned.”

Putin also hinted at this realpolitik when he recently noted that “our Chinese friends are tough bargainers”.

“Naturally, they proceed from their national interests in any deal, which is the only way to go,” he added.

Alexander Gabuev, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said that even if Xi was unsettled by some of the consequences of the Ukraine war, his options were limited.

“If Putin is that obsessed with Ukraine, what can [Xi] realistically do?” Gabuev said. “Getting cheap [Russian] commodities and weapons designs is good for [Beijing] and the departure of the Putin regime and the unlikely prospect of a pro-western government in Russia is a terrible nightmare for China.”

The Samarkand summit was Xi’s 39th in-person meeting with Putin since he was appointed head of the Chinese Communist party a decade ago. While they have celebrated birthdays together and refer to each other as “best friends”, Thursday’s meeting reflected some changing dynamics.

Putin’s unexpected remarks about Chinese concerns over Ukraine are “a sign of the shifting power balance in the relationship”, said Jakub Jakóbowski, a senior fellow with the China programme at the Centre for Eastern Studies in Warsaw.

Putin landed in Uzbekistan after a lightning counter-offensive by Ukrainian forces recaptured swaths of territory in the north-east of the country.

“The summit comes at the worst possible time for Putin, in the immediate wake of disastrous setbacks on the battlefield that have exposed, irrefutably, the truth that Russia cannot win this war and no longer knows what its objectives are,” said Nigel Gould-Davies, senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a London think-tank.

By comparison, for Xi’s domestic purposes, the summit with his Russian counterpart was successful, coming just weeks ahead of a Chinese Communist party congress at which he will secure an unprecedented third term in power.

Putin also told Xi that he blamed “the provocations of the United States and its satellites” for the recent crisis over Taiwan, which Xi threatened in August with a series of unprecedented military exercises after US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taipei.

“Xi received what he needed for his internal audiences on the eve of the party congress: Moscow’s clear and repeated support of China’s Taiwan policy, along with the condemnation of the US,” Jakóbowski said.

Russia and China have potentially conflicting interests in central Asia, however, where some former Soviet republics have been unnerved by Putin’s adventurism in Ukraine and are developing closer economic ties with China.

Xi first travelled on Wednesday to Kazakhstan, his first visit to a foreign country since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic in January 2020. Without mentioning Russia specifically, he told his Kazakh counterpart, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, that China would “resolutely support [Kazakhstan’s] independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity . . . and strongly oppose interference by any forces in the domestic affairs of your country”.

“The Ukraine war has turned Kazakhstan from Russia,” said Lance Gore, a China politics expert at the National University of Singapore’s East Asian Institute. “If Putin can do that to Ukraine, he can do that to Kazakhstan. That’s a big wedge between Kazakhstan and Russia that will enhance China’s position in central Asia.”

Additional reporting by Xinning Liu and Maiqi Ding in Beijing

Video: China, Russia and the war in Ukraine

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