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When Russian President Vladimir Putin met Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Uzbekistan last week, the mood was markedly different from their triumphant meeting in Beijing, weeks before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
There was no further promotion of the “borderless” friendship declared on the opening day of the Winter Olympics. Instead, Putin acknowledged that Beijing had “questions and concerns” about his faltering invasion, a subtle reference to the limits of China’s support and the growing asymmetry in their relationship.
In the Chinese statement to the meeting, Xi did not even refer to the much-publicized “strategic partnership” between Beijing and Moscow, noted Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing. This was the “most prudent or least significant statement in years” that Xi had made on their strategic relationship, Xi said.
The change in tone is unsurprising given Russia’s string of humiliating battlefield defeats, which exposed Putin’s vulnerability to his friends and foes alike. These setbacks come at a bad time for Xi, too, who is only weeks away from seeking an anti-standard third term at an important political meeting.
Under Xi, China forged closer ties with Russia. Already facing domestic problems from a slowing economy and his relentless no-Covid policy, Xi needed to project strength, not weakness, into his strategic alliance, which he personally endorsed.
Six days later, in a desperate escalation of the devastating war, Putin announced a “partial mobilization” of Russian citizens in a televised address, and even raised the specter of the use of nuclear weapons.
It is unknown whether Putin discussed his planned escalation with Xi during their last talks, just as it remains an open question whether Putin informed 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 have provided China with an opportunity to move away from Russia — a subtle shift that began with Xi’s meeting with Putin.
“China has no other choice but to distance itself somewhat from Putin due to his war escalation, his aggression and annexation, and his renewed threat of nuclear war,” said Xi of Renmin University.
“China did not want this rude friend to fight. What might be his fate on the battlefield is not a business at all that can be managed by China.”
But others are more skeptical. Putin’s frank acknowledgment of Beijing’s misgivings does not necessarily indicate a rift between the two diplomatic allies; Instead, it could be a way for China to gain some diplomatic room for maneuver, particularly given how its tacit support for Russia has damaged Beijing’s image in Europe, said Theresa Fallon, director of the Center for Russia and Europe Studies in Brussels.
“My impression was that Beijing only wanted a little bit of daylight between China and Russia, but I think a lot of people interpreted that too much,” she said. “I think that was more for the European audience.”
“For China’s long-term interests, they have to keep Russia on board,” Fallon added.
The two authoritarian powers align strategically in their attempt to balance the West. The two leaders share a deep suspicion and hostility toward the United States, which they believe is bent on reining in China and Russia. They also share a vision of a new world order – one that better suits their nations’ interests and is no longer dominated by the West.
Days after the meeting between Xi and Putin, Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev and Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi held security talks in south China’s Fujian Province, pledging to “implement the consensus” reached by their leaders, deepen their strategic coordination and further 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 major split open between Russia and China,” said Brian Hart, a fellow in the China Energy Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“I see this as a continuation of China trying to walk a very fine line toward Russia and making sure that it continues to support Russia to the extent that it can without infringing on its interests.”
So far, Beijing has carefully avoided measures that would violate Western sanctions, such as providing direct military assistance to Moscow. But it has provided a lifeline to Russia’s battered economy by increasing its purchases of fuel and energy – at a bargain price. China’s imports of Russian coal in August rose 57% over the same period last year, reaching a five-year high. Its imports of crude oil also increased by 28% from the previous year.
After Putin invited army reservists to join the war in Ukraine, Beijing continued to walk a fine line, reiterating its steadfast position of dialogue to resolve the conflict.
When asked about Russia’s possible use of nuclear weapons at a press briefing, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson avoided the question.
“China’s position on the Ukraine crisis is consistent and clear,” said spokesman Wang Wenbin. “We call on the parties concerned to achieve a ceasefire through dialogue and negotiation, and find a solution that meets the legitimate security concerns of all parties as soon as possible.”
Also on Wednesday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei 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 stance” and “push for peace negotiations” on the Ukraine issue.
But this “neutral stance” was abandoned on the main evening newscast on China’s state television station CCTV, China’s most watched news programme.
After a brief report on Putin’s “partial mobilization” – without any mention of protests in Russia or international condemnations, the program cited an international observer who directly blamed the United States for “continuing to fuel the conflict between Russia and Ukraine”.
The conflict between Russia and Ukraine must be resolved through dialogues. But the United States continues to supply weapons to Ukraine, which makes it impossible to end the conflict, and worsens the situation, ”so appeared a former adviser to national defense in East Timor.
“The sanctions triggered by the conflict have repercussions all over the world… Oil prices in Timor-Leste have also gone up a lot. We are also suffering from the consequences.”
The comments align with the Russian narrative that Chinese officials and state media have been busy promoting over the past months — that the United States incited war by expanding NATO all the way to Russia’s doorstep, forcing Moscow into a corner.
Hart of the Center for Strategic and International Studies said the main factor driving the strategic alignment between Russia and China is the perception of threats from the United States.
“As long as this variable remains constant, as long as Beijing continues to worry about the United States, I think it will continue to strengthen relations with Russia,” he said.