“The international situation has now reached a new turning point. There are two winds in the world today, the east wind and the west wind...I believe, that the east wind is prevailing over the west wind.”
Those comments might read like an advance copy of the remarks that Xi Jinping intends to make during his visit to Moscow this week. In fact, they come from a speech made by another Chinese leader, Mao Zedong — visiting Moscow in 1957.
Echoing Mao, Xi often claims that: “The east is rising and the west is declining.” Xi, like Mao and Putin, also believes that Russia and China share an interest in accelerating the decline of western power. Two weeks ago, the Chinese leader accused the US of pursuing a policy of “containment, encirclement and suppression” aimed at China.
Russia and China’s leaders are also, once again, meeting against the backdrop of a fear of nuclear war. In Moscow in 1957, Mao urged his audience to consider the upside of nuclear conflict: “If the worst came to the worst and half of mankind died, the other half would remain while imperialism would be razed to the ground and the whole world would become socialist.” Even for his Soviet audience, this was strong stuff.
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President Xi, by contrast, will present himself in Moscow as a man of peace. He arrives basking in the glow of a real diplomatic achievement — a Chinese-brokered rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia. China has also recently put forward a 12-point peace plan to settle the war in Ukraine. It is possible that, while in Moscow, Xi will propose an immediate ceasefire. After his summit with Vladimir Putin, the Chinese leader is likely to call President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine.
Zelenskyy will doubtless take that call. Xi has enormous leverage over Putin; should he choose to use it.
But Zelenskyy and the western coalition backing Ukraine will also be appropriately sceptical about China’s peace proposals. The reality is that Xi is very unlikely to be either willing or able to broker an end to the Ukraine war.
Unlike with Saudi Arabia and Iran, China is not mediating between two parties who are ready to come to an agreement. Beijing is also not a neutral player in this conflict. Although China has abstained in UN votes condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it has consistently used Russian terminology to describe the conflict. Qin Gang, China’s foreign minister, recently lauded relations between Russia and China as a “driving force” in world affairs. The Chinese can also be counted upon to dismiss the International Criminal Court’s indictment of Putin.
The current Chinese “peace plan” says nothing about Russian withdrawal from occupied Ukrainian land. If Xi proposes a ceasefire in the war, the Russians can safely feign enthusiasm — knowing that Ukraine will reject the idea while their lands are occupied. Even if a ceasefire was declared, Russia could always violate it — as it has in the past.
For Xi, however, it is useful to present China as a pragmatic peacemaker — interested, above all, in trade and shared prosperity. America, by contrast, is portrayed by China as an ideological warmonger, dividing the world into friends and enemies — and fixated on preserving its own hegemony. That narrative helps China in the battle for opinion in the “global south” — and it worries the Americans.
But behind the talk of peace, the substance of the Xi-Putin summit will push in the opposite direction — since it will involve increased Chinese support for Russia, as it wages a war of aggression. Alexander Gabuev, one of Russia’s leading China watchers, now in exile, comments: “Make no mistake: the trip will be about deepening ties to Russia that benefit Beijing, not about any real peace brokering.”
The big question will be what ties Xi sees as beneficial to China. The economic part is easy. As the west weans itself off Russian energy, China is able to buy oil and gas at reduced rates. Putin and Xi are likely to agree to accelerate work on another gas pipeline between their countries. Supplying Russia with goods that it can no longer buy in the west, in particular semiconductors, is also a lucrative move for Beijing — although some Chinese firms will be wary of falling foul of western sanctions. The Russian and Chinese leaders are also likely to continue efforts to promote alternatives to the dollar as a global currency.
The really sensitive question will be Putin’s requests for Chinese weapons — in particular artillery shells and missiles to make up for the shortages that are undermining Russia’s war effort. The US warned last month that China was considering making this move. Whatever Putin and Xi agree is likely to remain a closely guarded secret.
Also hidden from view will be any tensions between Russia and China. Some American strategists hope that one day they might be able to engineer a second Moscow-Beijing split — like the one that led to the US-China rapprochement of the 1970s. But that currently seems even further over the horizon than a successful Chinese peace initiative over Ukraine.
The pictures of Xi and Putin together in Moscow will send a clear message. Russia and China remain close partners — linked by their joint hostility to America and its allies.
Gideon Rachman is a Financial Times columnist. Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023