Chinese President Xi Jinping and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin have met 40 times since Xi took over in March 2013. The latest visit, the 41st, is however the first one after the Ukraine war erupted.
Before focusing on the outcomes of this meeting and implications for the region, a glance at this personal friendship and China-Russia friendship is pertinent to understand the dynamics of the current meeting.
The China-Russia Friendship
China has different categories for its partnerships with each country, the highest formulation “Comprehensive strategic partnership coordination relations” is used only to describe its relationship with Russia. The only other country with a separate stand-alone relationship is Pakistan. Over the last ten years, President Xi has personally invested in the relationship and he connects ideologically, as well, with President Putin.
Both share a deep mistrust of the US and the West along with trying to break the US hegemony in the world. During the Xi-Putin summit in February 2022, both sides declared that their friendship has ‘no limits’. The Xi-Putin conversation ended with a joint statement and the two leaders officially deciding to extend the China-Russia friendship treaty.
Given this background, Xi’s visit to Russia is a message to the US and West that despite the rhetoric, China will not abandon Russia and will, in fact, take the friendship to the next level.
The Chinese Perception
Two articles in the Chinese language media bring out the Chinese perception as far as the relationship and meeting are concerned. An article published in a state-owned portal lists out the rationale of the visit as reassurance to a friend (Russia) that it is not alone despite western sanctions. The visit is seen as buttressing China’s independent foreign policy despite US pressure to condemn Russia and portraying the situation in Ukraine as the West’s fault.
This article also emphasised that China successfully delivered important achievements like the Saudi Arabia-Iran deal. Moreover, China’s 12-point plan to bring the Russia-Ukraine conflict to an end is contrasted with the US, which is supplying weapons to Ukraine, to highlight China’s role as a peacemaker. The article declares the visit a success and China-Russia friendship as crucial to set an alternative world order.
The second article also published in the Chinese government portal brings out another aspect: namely that China cannot publicly supply material help to Russia as it will result in western sanctions, but it will continue to support Russia in every other way possible, reemphasising the importance of combating US hegemony.
The joint statements released after the meeting and individual statements establish one thing very clearly to a China watcher: Even though Xi Jinping has not overtly offered material support to Russia in this conflict, he has certainly endorsed Russia’s stance against expansion of alliances.
A Russian Decline
Russia, for its part, has appreciated China’s blueprint for the settlement of the Ukraine issue and highlighted that Russia would welcome China as the mediator for settling the issue when the other side decides to do so.
What the Russians could not hide however, was them being inexorably pulled into China’s economic and political orbit. The welcome given to President Xi, was set to a song sung by Xi’s wife Peng Liyuan on a tank. The military symbolism was lost on nobody. Further Putin endorsed Xi Jinping’s vision of an alternate world order including initiatives like BRI, Global Development Initiative etc.
There was also one concrete measure to fight sanctions: specifically, the Siberia-2 gas pipeline across Mongolia (disputed territory between China-Russia), which while increasing Russian supplies to China, pushes Russia deeper into a Chinese gas monopsony. There was also mention of combining research and industrial capabilities in the fields of information technology, cyber security, and artificial intelligence.
Consequences For India
The process of Russia becoming China's junior partner is well underway. This increasing and obvious Russian dependence on China has direct implications for India in that the political, diplomatic and military support that India was getting until now from Russia will either be diluted or eliminated. Cumulatively, these events and statements foreshadow an increasing Chinese belligerence towards India.
The question is what is India’s redundancy plan and can it realistically do anything to stop Russia becoming a Chinese client state? That eventuality would be a geopolitical disaster for India, given the primary aim of its foreign policy since Independence has been to avoid the emergence of a bloc that monopolises the resources of Asia.
Namrata Hasija is a Research Fellow with the Centre for China Analysis and Strategy and her primary area of interest is Chinese foreign policy and India-Taiwan relations. Views are personal and do not represent the stand of this publication.