Xi Jinping’s visit to Moscow brought no revelations, and the war in Ukraine was only mentioned in public statements in the context of China's “peace plan,” proposed by Beijing on the anniversary of the invasion. The plan contains no specifics and does not contradict Russia's position. Many fear that China’s peace initiatives are all but a bluff and that Xi could use the war as a factor to weaken NATO and strengthen Russia's dependence on China. The meeting that took place in Moscow and the empty political statements that accompanied it do not yet give a true picture of Beijing's position. But the very fact that China continues to distance itself from supporting Russia and is trying to project an image of a peacemaker, indicates that China is not planning to escalate its confrontation with NATO in the near future, and Putin should not expect to make Beijing an ally. By flirting with all sides as a neutral “conciliator” – even if the negotiations go nowhere – Xi may gain more political influence than in alliance with the Kremlin.
China's activism on the international stage and the failure of Wang Yi's European tour
Tensions rise in Asia
The Ukraine factor for China
The recent meeting between Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping was the second since the beginning of the war, following talks on the margins of the SCO summit in Samarkand in September 2022. A full-fledged bilateral meeting did not materialise then: the conversation between the presidents was relatively short and not face to face, but accompanied by SCO diplomats and symbolically separated by a long table – a detail highlighted by many analysts in support of arguments about the growing asymmetry and distance in relations between the two countries. The recent meeting seemed like the exact opposite, and appeared to promise more productive and meaningful discussions.
The recent meeting between Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping was the second since the beginning of the war, following talks on the margins of the SCO summit in Samarkand in September 2022. A full-fledged bilateral meeting did not materialise then: the conversation between the presidents was relatively short and not face to face, but accompanied by SCO diplomats and symbolically separated by a long table – a detail highlighted by many analysts in support of arguments about the growing asymmetry and distance in relations between the two countries. The recent meeting seemed like the exact opposite, and appeared to promise more productive and substantive discussions.
The significance of this visit for global politics, however, lies not only in the willingness of the Chinese leader to hold discussions with Putin. The context of China-Russia relations today includes many other crucial elements – notably, Xi Jinping's eventual re-election as Chinese president, Chinese diplomacy in Europe, China's recently proposed “peace plan” for the Ukraine conflict, US intelligence reports of possible Chinese arms shipments to Russia, and mounting tensions in China-NATO relations. All these elements are closely related and interlinked.
China's activism on the international stage and the failure of Wang Yi's European tour
Firstly, it is certainly worth talking about Xi Jinping's re-election to a third term in power: it culminated in Xi being officially conferred the position of President of the People's Republic of China. Although Xi cemented his de facto power over the country back in February by extending his rule over the party, the renewal of the presidency is an important symbolic gesture, which demonstrates Xi Jinping's superiority over his predecessors, the Constitution, and the rules of Deng Xiaoping that were inviolable before him. This re-election, although somewhat preordained, is no mundane or formal event, but a turning point in the political history of modern China. This context, coupled with economic woes and China's largest protests in decades, is pushing the head of state to try to strengthen his own credibility and explains China's and Xi Jinping's activism on the international stage.
This can be seen not only in China's relations with Russia and Ukraine, but also in other diplomatic areas. For example, the year 2023 began for China with the World Economic Forum in Davos – a highly significant event for international economy and trade. The speech by Liu He, Vice Premier of the PRC’s State Council, was in a sense unusual for China, as it resembled an investment pitch: the official emphasized opening up China's economy and called on the country’s foreign partners to engage in economic cooperation. This was followed by further attempts to improve economic and political relations between China and Europe. In February this year, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi undertook a week-long diplomatic trip to the EU, during which he visited Germany, Italy and Hungary and met with the EU’s top diplomat Josep Borrell.
The presidential renewal is an important symbolic gesture which demonstrates Xi Jinping's superiority over his predecessors and China’s Constitution
After the European tour on his way back to China, Wang Yi also visited Moscow, where he held talks with Sergey Lavrov and met with Putin. However, the Chinese Foreign Ministry's statement following the meetings was, in the best traditions of Chinese diplomacy, vague and non-binding. Apparently, the main focus of the talks was a potential meeting between Xi and Putin. The talks with European politicians seemed to have been the main focus of the trip after all, and the main concluding point of the diplomatic mission was Wang Yi's speech at the Munich security conference. There, in addition to calling for a return of friendship between China and Europe, he spoke of the need to strengthen Europe's sovereignty and independence from the US, and attacked Washington with accusations of self-serving motives regarding the war in Ukraine and a “hysterical” reaction to the Chinese balloon incident. These tactics were subsequently described by European political and security experts (notably Michael Clarke, professor of War Studies at King's College London) as a failure for the entire trip. US-European relations have only grown stronger against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine, and China's reluctance to directly condemn Russia has remained a key issue for Europe in any diplomatic talks with Beijing.
However, Wang Yi's aggressive anti-American stance at the speech is far from surprising. Apart from the fact that Chinese diplomacy in general is rarely shy about using anti-Americanism as an ideological justification for foreign policy, China-US relations were already strained at the time of Wang Yi's “Eurotour.” The “spy balloon” incident in early February, when the US military shot down a Chinese hot air balloon that had managed to fly over a large part of North America, had triggered the souring of the relationship. The White House accused China of violating US airspace and trying to spy on the US – unusual in itself, given that there are intelligence methods that don’t require such aggravation. Beijing, after a long silence, did admit that the balloon belonged to China, but denied accusations of espionage and claimed that the balloon was in fact a civilian airship used for meteorological research, and that it entered US territory by accident.
Chinese balloon over Washington, D.C.
Tensions rise in Asia
The balloon incident follows another, perhaps far more important, development in relations between China and NATO – and the US in particular. In late January this year, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg visited South Korea and Japan to discuss the strengthening of bilateral ties. The war in Ukraine and the growing influence and threat of China in Asia – particularly in Taiwan – were key topics of discussion between the Alliance and the Korean and Japanese defense ministers. Stoltenberg expressed NATO’s concern about China's military policy: in recent years, Xi Jinping had engaged in an army modernization programme and invested in nuclear weapons, while not engaging in strategic arms control agreements with the US. Indeed, military modernization is one of Xi Jinping's key policy objectives, along with maintaining economic growth. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), the Chinese army had already undergone a major transformation and modernization by 2022 – primarily upgrading the development of new supply networks for building heavy equipment. As many as 70% of the Chinese tanks in service met the latest military standards as of last year.
The reaction to Stoltenberg's trip in Beijing was extremely negative. NATO, in China's view, is seeking to reinforce a “Cold War mentality” – that is, to try to push China to the periphery and move into a passive yet direct confrontation. Another concern for Beijing remains the direct expansion of the Alliance into the Asia-Pacific region – the argument here is in a sense reminiscent of Russian allegations about the dangers of NATO's eastward expansion. Xi sees NATO's presence in the region as a restriction of China's freedom and a violation of its security space and regional interests. This, in his view, is little different from meddling in domestic affairs and the violation of sovereignty – a major red line for China.
Uncertainty, however, remains the main factor in the China-NATO relationship in Asia. The Alliance's policy towards Asia is rather vague – for example, one of NATO’s long-standing key aims was not to take an excessively “anti-Chinese position.” While aware of the possible threat posed by China and the potential rivalry between the PRC and the Alliance, the US and NATO’s attempts to influence the region have remained rather limited and have relied on the Quad – a quadrilateral scheme of relations in the region between the US, Australia, India and China. At the same time, attitudes towards both NATO and the format itself within the group remained contradictory, with frequent opposition from India. Given China's enormous economic influence in the region, and its strong emphasis on economic diplomacy and interdependence building, the quadrilateral arrangement is very complex, but it cannot be abandoned by the US or the Alliance.
Uncertainty remains the main factor in the China-NATO relationship in Asia
The Ukraine factor for China
The factor of the war in Ukraine is becoming particularly important against the backdrop of deteriorating relations between the PRC and the US. A number of analysts have suggested that despite China's disinterest in a protracted war, it nevertheless creates a hotbed of distraction for NATO, emptying the alliance’s arms depots and reducing its military capabilities. NATO analysts argued along similar lines when they announced the possibility of Chinese arms sales to Russia in late February. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg claimed that US and other NATO intelligence agencies saw indications that Beijing was considering the move. He stressed, however, that there was yet no evidence of a decision or direct preparation for arms deliveries. Following Stoltenberg's statement, a number of US diplomats issued warnings to China not to support Russia directly: otherwise, China could be isolated from the world and subject to sanctions, which would cause nothing but damage to all parties involved.
While no new information has since emerged on the possible arms shipments, Politico recently published an investigation revealing that some Chinese companies (notably China North Industries and Da-Jiang Innovations) have supplied Russian companies with UAV parts, body armor and low-caliber rifles through Turkey and the UAE. However, these are most likely not government-approved shipments to support Russia in the war. Although the equipment may be used by Russia in Ukraine, all the products mentioned in the report are dual-use, the volumes of deliveries are relatively small, and cooperation between the companies was already in place before the start of the war. Moreover, no evidence has yet been found of Russian use of Chinese rifles or body armor on the battlefield, and the products may indeed have been used for direct, non-military purposes.
However, despite increasing tensions between the West and China, the PRC has not engaged in open confrontation in recent months. On the contrary, it is actively seeking to play the role of a mediator and peacemaker. On February 24, the Chinese Foreign Ministry published Xi Jinping's long-promoted “peace plan,” officially titled “China's position on the Political Settlement of the Ukraine Crisis,” which was announced in Wang Yi's speech at the Munich Security Conference. In reality, the “plan” does not offer any concrete action, but rather a set of general principles and proposals, such as respect for the territorial integrity of all countries – without specifying exactly what this means regarding the war in Ukraine and Russia's occupation of its territories – as well as a ceasefire, the resumption of peace talks, rejection of the “Cold War mentality” and so on. Western countries’ reactions to the “peace plan” have been cold. EU foreign policy spokeswoman Nabila Massrali criticized it as “blurring the roles of the aggressor and the aggressed” and building on a “misplaced focus on the so-called ‘legitimate security interests and concerns’ of parties, implying a justification for Russia’s illegal invasion.” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in turn accused China of bias and selectivity.
Despite growing tensions between the West and China, the PRC has not engaged in open confrontation in recent months
However, Western countries’ rhetoric has softened over time, NATO-China relations seem to be reaching a plateau, and a number of experts and media outlets have begun to discuss the possibility of a relatively genuine Chinese interest in peacebuilding attempts. The main argument lies in Xi Jinping's ambitions, already mentioned in this article, to regain his own credibility – he may seek to build a new global identity for China as a “big brother” and peacemaker in international politics. China's efforts in other regions also point to this: on March 10, reports confirmed that diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, severed seven years ago, had been restored following China’s initiative and mediation. It is possible that against the backdrop of one diplomatic success, Xi may make a significant effort towards the war in Ukraine as well.
Skepticism about China's true intentions, however, has not disappeared. Some analysts believe that there is no question of sincere peacemaking and that Xi Jinping's trip to Moscow was aimed at strengthening ties with Russia and increasing its dependence on China. Xi is thus seeking to support Russia in order to further its “vassalisation,” and everything else is nothing but a veil for Western observers. This remains a realistic development, but it is not the only one, or even the priority. It is worth remembering that Beijing's position during an entire year of war was extremely restrained, and Russia's growing dependence on China occurred independently, without any extra efforts or personal intervention from Xi. At the same time, Xi and Wang Yi’s attempts to strengthen their relations with Europe suggest that, for the time being, Beijing is not ready to risk it. Active and serious investment in peace initiatives – in particular the Iran-Saudi deal – at the very least signals Xi's interest in peacemaking.
Another indication of the possibility of Beijing's attempts to resolve the conflict was Xi's plans to hold talks with Zelensky: these plans were met with enthusiasm not only from Ukraine, but also from Western politicians. The White House, for example, came out in support of the talks. “We have been encouraging President Xi to reach out to President Zelensky,” said Jake Sullivan, the US president's national security adviser, and confirmed that President Joe Biden was ready to personally discuss the talks with Xi.
Even if China is indeed sincere about engaging in peacemaking, this does not mean Beijing's efforts will be successful or even fair to Ukraine, but it could mean the further withdrawal of direct military support to Russia, hence preventing a further and irreversible deterioration of relations between China and NATO.