M. K. Bhadrakumar
President Vladimir Putin (R) and Chinese President Xi Jinping ahead of talks in restricted format, Kremlin, Moscow, March 21, 2023
The Russian media reported that President Vladimir Putin made an extraordinary gesture as President Xi Jinping left the Kremlin following the state dinner last week on Tuesday evening by escorting him to the limousine and seeing him off.
And Xi during the goodbye handshake reportedly responded, “Together, we should push forward these changes that have not happened for 100 years. Take care.”
Xi was alluding to the past 100 years of modern history that witnessed the United States transforming from a country to the north of Mexico in the Western Hemisphere to a superpower and global hegemon.
With his profound sense of history and dialectical mind, Xi was recalling the intense talks with Putin that dwelt on the contemporary realities burying the US’ unipolar moment in the dustbin and on the imperatives of China and Russia joining hands to consolidate the transition of the world order toward democratisation and multipolarity.
It was an appropriate finale to a state visit that began the previous evening with Xi expressing confidence that Russians will support Putin at the presidential elections next year. At one stroke, Xi “cancelled” the West’s demonising of Putin, mindful of the absurdity of even arranging an arrest warrant against the Kremlin leader to detract from his talks in Moscow.
China has a scrupulous policy of refraining from commenting on the internal politics of other countries. However, in the case of the situation surrounding Russia, Xi has made a notable exception by signalling his keenness for Putin’s proactive leadership in such tumultuous times. The majority of world opinion, especially in the Global South, will agree.
Won’t the erudite Russian public opinion take cognisance too — with a roar of approval? Yes, Putin’s consistent 80 percent rating is a signpost. Xi may have poured cold water on the last desperate western ploys of instigating a bunch of Russian oligarchs to spearhead a regime change in the Kremlin.
To be sure, the timing of Xi’s state visit in the middle of the war in Ukraine messaged the highest importance that China attaches to the relations with Russia. There is great deliberation in doing so, as both China and Russia are locked in spiralling tensions vis-a-vis the United States.
There has been a dramatic change of mood in Beijing. The nadir was reached with the boorish behaviour by President Biden in his State of the Union address on February 7 when he went off-script and hysterically shouted, “Name me a world leader who’d change places with Xi Jinping.”
In the Eastern culture, such boorishness is taken as unforgivably scandalous behaviour. In the weeks since the US shot down the Chinese weather balloon and maligned China internationally, Beijing has rebuffed several attempts by the White House seeking telephone conversation for Biden with President Xi.
Beijing has had enough of Biden’s hollow promises to mend ties while on the sly strengthening alliances across the Asia-Pacific region, inserting the NATO into the Asia-Pacific power dynamic and sending additional forces and firepower to places like Guam and the Philippines, apart from single-mindedly striving to weakening China’s economy.
Xi’s Moscow visit became a great occasion for Russia and China to reaffirm their “no limit” partnership and scatter the western attempts since the war broke out in Ukraine to create rift in the Sino-Russian relationship.
To quote Professor Graham Allison at Harvard University, “Along every dimension—personal, economic, military and diplomatic—the undeclared alliance that Xi has built with Russian President Vladimir Putin has become much more consequential than most of the United States’ official alliances today.”
However, alliance or not, the fact remains that this “new model of major-country relations featuring mutual respect, peaceful coexistence and win-win cooperation” — to quote Xi Jinping — is anything but a hierarchical order.
America’s pundits have a problem comprehending equal relationships between two sovereign and independent nations. And in this case, neither Russia nor China is inclined to declare a formal alliance because, simply put, an alliance inevitably requires assuming obligations and limiting the optimal pursuit of interests in deference to a collective agenda.
What emerges, therefore, is that Putin’s strategic calculus in Ukraine will be shaped much more heavily by events on the battlefield than on any Chinese input. Russia’s reaction to the Chinese “peace plan” regarding Ukraine testifies to that reality.
No sooner than Xi departed from Moscow, Putin in an interview with with Russia 1 TV, set the record straight that Russia is outproducing the West’s ammunition supplies to Kiev. He said, “Russia’s output level and its military-industrial complex are developing at a very fast pace, which was unexpected by many.”
While multiple Western countries will provide Ukraine with munitions, “the Russian production sector on its own will produce three times more ammunition for the same period of time,” Putin added.
He repeated that the West’s arms shipments to Ukraine are of concern to Russia only because they constitute “an attempt to prolong the conflict” and will “only lead to a bigger tragedy and nothing more.”
However, this is not to belittle the great significance of the partnership for both countries in the political, diplomatic and economic spheres. The salience lies in the two countries’ growing interdependency in multiple directions that cannot be quantified yet and keeps “evolving” (Xi) and appears seamless.
The Ukraine war, paradoxically, is turning out to be a wake-up call — a war that can prevent another world war rather than engender one. China understands that Russia has single-handedly taken on the “collective West” and shown it is more than a match.
This assessment in Beijing cannot escape the West’s attention and will impact the western thinking too for the medium and long term — not only for Eurasia but also the Asia-Pacific.
A recent article in the Global Times some weeks ago by Hu Xijin, the former editor-in-chief of the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee daily highlighted the ‘big picture.’
Hu wrote that the war in Ukraine “has evolved into a war of attrition between Russia and the West… While NATO is supposed to be much stronger than Russia, the situation on the ground doesn’t appear so, which is causing anxiety in the West.”
Hu drew some stunning conclusions: “The US and the West have found it much more difficult than expected to defeat Russia. They know that China has not provided military aid to Russia, and the question that haunts them is: if Russia alone is already so difficult to deal with, what if China really starts to provide military aid to Russia, using its massive industrial capabilities for the Russian military? Would the situation on the Ukrainian battlefield fundamentally change? Furthermore, Russia alone can already confront the entire West in Ukraine. If they really force China and Russia to join hands, what changes will there be in the world’s military situation?”
Isn’t the notion prevalent in the US and Europe that the Russia-China alliance is an alliance of unequals is itself a self-serving western fallacy? Hu is spot on: Although China’s comprehensive strength is still short of that of the US, in combination with Russia, there is a paradigm shift in the balance and the US is no longer entitled to act as it pleases.
It is the common concern of Russia and China that the world order must return to an international system with the UN at its core and a world order based on international law. There is no question that the two countries’ strategy is to overturn the “rules-based order” dominated by the US and return to an international order centred on the UN.
In fact, Article 5 is the very soul of the joint statement issued in Moscow: “The two sides reaffirm their commitment to firmly upholding the international system with the United Nations at its core, the international order based on international law and the basic norms governing international relations based on the purposes and principles of the UN Charter, and oppose all forms of hegemonism, unilateralism and power politics, the Cold War mentality, confrontation between camps and the establishment of cliques targeting specific countries.”
Make no mistake that this is not about removing the US as the boss and replacing it with China, but about effectively checking the US from bullying smaller, weaker states, and thereby ushering in a new international order with primacy on peaceful development and political correctness that overrides all ideological differences.