As Russia raises nuclear specter in Ukraine, China looks the other way

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When Russian President Vladimir Putin met with Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Uzbekistan last week, the mood was noticeably different from their triumphant meeting in Beijing, weeks before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

There was no more touting of their “no-limits” friendship declared on the opening day of the Winter Olympics. Instead, Putin conceded that Beijing had “questions and concerns” about his faltering invasion, in a subtle nod to the limits of China’s backing and the growing asymmetry in their relationship.

In the Chinese readout of the meeting, Xi did not even refer to the much-heralded “strategic partnership” between Beijing and Moscow, observed Shi Yinhong, an international relations professor at Renmin University in Beijing. It was “the most prudent, or most low-key statement in years” issued by Xi on their strategic relationship, Shi said.

The shift in tone is unsurprising given Russia’s string of humiliating defeats on the battlefield, which has exposed Putin’s weakness to his friends and enemies alike. Those setbacks come at a bad time for Xi, too, who is only weeks away from seeking a norm-breaking third term at a key political meeting.

Under Xi, China has forged ever closer ties with Russia. Already facing domestic woes from a slowing economy and his unrelenting zero-Covid policy, Xi needed a projection of strength, not vulnerability, in his personally endorsed strategic alliance.

Six days later, in a desperate escalation of the devastating war, Putin announced a “partial mobilization” of Russian citizens in a televised speech, and even raised the specter of using nuclear weapons.

It is not known if Putin discussed his planned escalation with Xi during their latest talks, just as it remains an open question whether Putin had told Xi about his planned invasion the last time they met in Beijing.

To some Chinese analysts, Putin’s setbacks and escalation of the war offered China an opportunity to tilt away from Russia – a subtle shift that began with Xi’s meeting with Putin.

“China has no other choice except (to) stay away somewhat further from Putin because of his war escalation, his aggression and annexation, and his renewed threat of nuclear war,” said Shi with Renmin University.

“China has not wanted this unheeding friend (to) fight. What may be his fate in the battlefield is not a business manageable at all by China.”

But others are more skeptical. Putin’s open admission of Beijing’s misgivings doesn’t necessarily signal a rift between the two diplomatic allies; instead, it could be a way for China to gain some diplomatic wiggle room, especially given how its tacit support for Russia has damaged Beijing’s image in Europe, said Theresa Fallon, director of the Centre for Russia Europe Asia Studies in Brussels.

“My impression was that Beijing just wanted a little sliver of daylight between China and Russia, but I think many have over interpreted that,” she said. “I think that was more for a European audience.”

“For China’s long-term interests, they’ve got to keep Russia on board,” Fallon added.

The two authoritarian powers are strategically aligned in their attempt to counterbalance the West. Both leaders share a deep suspicion and hostility toward the United States, which they believe is bent on holding China and Russia down. They also share a vision for a new world order – one that better accommodates 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 China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi held security talks in the southern Chinese province of Fujian, vowing 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 saw a major schism open up between Russia and China,” said Brian Hart, a fellow with the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“I see this as a continuation of China trying to walk its pretty thin line on Russia and to make sure that it is continuing to support Russia to the extent that it can without infringing on its own interests.”

So far, Beijing has carefully avoided actions that would violate Western sanctions, such as providing direct military aid to Moscow. But it has presented a lifeline for the battered Russian economy by stepping up purchases of its fuel and energy – at a bargain price. China’s imports of Russian coal in August rose by 57% from the same period last year, hitting a five-year high; its crude oil imports also surged 28% from a year earlier.

After Putin called up army reservists to join the war in Ukraine, Beijing has continued to walk the fine line, reiterating its long-held stance for dialogue to resolve the conflict.

When asked about Russia’s possible use of nuclear weapons at a news briefing Wednedsay, a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry sidestepped the question.

“China’s stance on the Ukraine crisis has been consistent and clear,” said spokesman Wang Wenbin. “We call on the relevant parties to achieve a ceasefire through dialogue and negotiation, and find a solution that accommodates the legitimate security concerns of all parties as soon as possible.”

Also on Wednesday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

According to the Chinese readout, Wang stressed that China would continue to “maintain its objective and impartial position” and “push for peace negotiations” on the issue of Ukraine.

But that “impartial position” was given away in the prime evening newscast on China’s state broadcaster CCTV, the most-watched news program in China.

After a terse report on Putin’s “partial mobilization” – without any mention of the protests in Russia or international condemnations, the program cited an international observer laying the blame squarely on the US for “continuing to stoke the conflict between Russia and Ukraine.”

“The conflict between Russia and Ukraine should be resolved through dialogues. But the US keeps supplying Ukraine with weapons, which makes it impossible to end the conflict, and makes the situation worse,” a former national defense adviser in Timor-Leste was shown as saying.

“The sanctions sparked by the conflict have repercussions across the globe…The oil prices in Timor-Leste have also gone up a lot. We, too, are suffering the consequences.”

The comments are in line with the Russian narrative that Chinese officials and state media have been busy promoting over the past months — that the US has instigated the war by expanding NATO all the way to Russia’s doorstep, forcing Moscow in a corner.

The main factor driving the strategic alignment between Russia and China is the perception of threats from the United States, said Hart with CSIS.

“As long as that variable remains constant, as long as Beijing continues to worry about the United States, I think it will continue to strengthen ties with Russia,” he said.