Xi Jinping in Moscow: A historic partnership in the making

Mar 25, 2023
Vladimir Putin met with Xi Jinping in advance of 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics.

Since 2010, Xi Jinping has met Vladimir Putin on 40 separate occasions, but this last visit may prove to be their most significant meeting yet. The stakes for both have never been higher.

Conscious of the rising risks of confrontation with the United States, Russia and China are intent on nurturing their comprehensive partnership. Each sees it as crucial to strengthening its security and economy and to advancing the idea of a multipolar world.

In their coverage of the visit, Western media, mirroring the official line in Washington, have been singularly focussed on the Ukraine conflict. They seem oblivious to the fact that the Sino-Russian relationship is now the most consequential bilateral partnership in the world.

The mainstream Western take on the visit has tended to privilege three propositions.

  • A diplomatically and economically weakened Russia, hard hit by Western sanctions, has become increasingly dependent on China.
  • The Russia-China partnership is but a marriage of convenience, in which China holds all the cards.
  • China’s 12-point Ukraine peace plan lacks substance and is little more than a stalling tactic.

These propositions may each contain a grain of truth but remarkably little insight. The relationship between Moscow and Beijing has been gaining steadily in breadth and depth for the best part of twenty years. The war in Ukraine has simply accelerated a trend long in the making.

Since Yeltsin’s first visit as president to China in December 1992, much water has flown under the bridge. On his second visit in 1996, the bilateral relationship was upgraded to a strategic partnership of coordination.

Five years later, the two countries signed the Treaty of Good-Neighbourliness and Friendly Cooperation. The first joint military exercise was held in 2005, and in 2009 a long-term agreement was signed for the supply of Russian crude oil to China and pipeline construction. A joint statement in 2010 foreshadowed a deepening of the strategic ad economic partnership.

It is, however, over the last ten years, coinciding with Xi Jinping’s meteoric rise to power, that much of this planning has begun to bear fruit. Specific targets were now set in the areas of trade, investment, high-tech, infrastructure construction and finance.

In 2013, energy related agreements were reached covering oil, gas, coal, nuclear power, and renewable energy. Russia was to supply China with up to 100 million tons of crude oil over ten years

Bilateral trade has since steadily expanded, as has the scope and intensity of diplomatic and strategic consultation and coordination. Against a backdrop of rising Sino-American tensions, the two sides agreed in 2016 to hold joint military exercises in the South China Sea.

A new milestone was reached in 2019 with the Joint Statement on Comprehensive Strategic Partnership of Coordination in the New Era. It committed the two countries to pursuing one overarching objective:

To help each other, to provide stronger strategic support, to support each other in pursuing their own development path and safeguarding their core interests, and to safeguard the security, sovereignty and territorial integrity of each country.

The widespread belief in the West that the war in Ukraine could or should prompt China to depart from this overriding principle is pure fantasy.

Moscow and Beijing, each driven by its assessment of global trends, have drawn closer together. America’s addictive attachment to a unipolar world now visibly unravelling was the single most important catalyst. NATO’s unrelenting eastern expansion and Japan’s, South Korea’s and Australia’s accelerating integration into America’s military orbit have driven Russia and China into a mutual embrace.

Xi Jinping’s latest visit to Russia, the pomp and ceremony that accompanied it. and the reciprocal words of endearment exchanged by the two leaders, were but the outward symbols of a steadily deepening relationship.

On this occasion the two sides signed some 14 agreements in fields ranging from trade and industry, to sport, culture, and military security. In committing to further increases in the scale of trade, they noted that bilateral trade in 2022 had reached a record high of US$185 billion and was projected to exceed US$200 billion in 2023.

The two leaders discussed plans to develop new infrastructure projects, and ensure food and energy security for both countries. They pledged to expand the exchange of minerals, metals and chemical products, and jointly strive to be world leaders in information technology, cyber security and artificial intelligence. They also agreed on collaborative production of television programmes.

On the military front, they agreed to conduct regular joint maritime and air patrols and joint exercises. They undertook to use all available bilateral mechanisms to upgrade the exchange of military information and enhance mutual trust between their respective armed forces.

These commitments varied considerably in ambition, duration, and likelihood of success in the short to medium term. But viewed together, they pointed to a whole that signified more than the sum of its parts.

This overarching perspective is best expressed in Xi Jinping’s and Vladimir Putin’s opinion pieces published on the eve of the visit. Though using different words, each suggests that the bilateral partnership will henceforth be global in scope and inspiration.

In Putin’s words:

“We closely cooperate in international affairs and effectively coordinate our foreign policy positions. . . We actively promote democratic multilateral structures such as the SCO [Shanghai Cooperation Organisation] and BRICS.”

He goes on to say that Russia’s and China’s common purpose is to advance a multipolar world order which no longer complies with the rules set by one centre of power bent on continued global supremacy. He ends by describing Russia-China relations as “the cornerstone” of regional and global stability and economic growth.

Might this be a delusional aspiration on Putin’s part? Perhaps, but what is telling is that this aspiration is shared, if anything, even more forcefully by the Chinese leader. He portrays the bilateral partnership as helping to safeguard “the UN-centred international system”.

The two countries are working together, he argues, in regional and global multilateral forums to advance a global multipolar world. They are both championing “a new type of international relations”, in which no country is superior to others, no model of governance is universal, and no single country dictates the shape of the international order.

Western critics might see the partnership as purely tactical, and as resting on high sounding principles poorly matched by practice. This may or may not be so, but there is no denying that these principles have wide appeal in the Global South and beyond.

China’s rise is not purely economic. It is increasingly political and cultural. The mediating role China recently played between two arch rivals, Iran and Saudi Arabia, is a likely sign of things to come.

Its carefully nuanced approach to the war in Ukraine and the recent tabling of its 12-point peace plan point in the same direction. However much the US administration may pour scorn on the Chinese plan, the fact remains that it commands widespread international attention.

Importantly, it has gained Russia’s support as a basis for future negotiation, and even Zelensksy, entirely dependent as he is on US military and financial support, is pressing hard for a meeting with Xi Jinping to discuss China’s proposals for ending the war.

The significance of the Russia-China partnership cannot be underestimated. Economically, China towers over Russia, but Russia’s immense natural resources, its much more substantial nuclear arsenal, and its vast territorial base across the Eurasian landmass make it an indispensable partner for China.

These two centres of power are no doubt driven by self-interest and their leaders are less than angelic. But to dismiss all ideas and proposals emerging from this partnership would be a gross error of judgment.

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