Discuss how we can collaborate more; that was the approach of the video call between President Vladimir Putin and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping on Friday. It’s not the first time the two have met. What do they hope to collect?
According to Frank Pieke, professor of Modern China Studies, they first find each other in their aversion to the West. “Both countries feel they are being cornered by Western countries, especially the United States. They want to teach America that it cannot run the world alone.”
For Putin, this is now mainly about the Western sanctions that his country is receiving for the invasion of Ukraine. “By such a video call with China, Russia wants to show that it is not isolated. That it still has powerful friends to whom it can still sell its oil, gas and other stuff,” thinks Bob Deen, Eastern Europe expert. at the Clingendael Institute.
So, unlike most Western countries, China does not condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine. And that makes the country an important sales market for Russia. That knife cuts both ways, says Pieke: “China is dependent on Russia for about a third of its total oil import. That is a lot. And it also gets gas, wood and minerals from there, for example.”
So no sanctions, but Xi does not really side with the Russians either. He keeps insisting on the importance of “diplomatic solutions” to the war in Ukraine. That point of view will not change quickly, Pieke thinks. “China’s attitude now is ‘it’s not our war, we have nothing to do with it’. That works fine for them, so I don’t think they will change their policies anytime soon.”
That China is somewhat reluctant is also apparent when Putin gives an account during the video conversation about the importance of closer military cooperation. Xi, in turn, always sticks to “strategic cooperation”. Pieke: “With this, Xi is actually saying that he does not like military cooperation.”
And that while military support from China is very important for Russia. “Putin hopes that China can help him, in particular with technology for its arms industry. China has things in that area that it cannot get hold of itself,” Deen explains.
Partly for this reason, Putin announced during the conversation that Xi will come to Moscow in the spring. China has not yet confirmed that news. But, says Pieke: “If I were Xi, I would go. And then I would keep saying all kinds of nice words, as he did at this meeting. But above all, don’t make any new promises.”
Concerns in Ukraine
Ukrainian President Volodimir Zelensky has also tried several times to make an appointment with Xi, but so far has been unsuccessful. “That is certainly an advantage for Putin,” says Deen. “For him it is a clear signal: we regional superpowers have excellent ties and are united in our aversion to the West.”
Still, Deen doesn’t think Ukraine has much to worry about. “I think Ukraine is always afraid that China will step in and help Russia with weapons or technology. But after what we’ve seen today, I really don’t think those concerns are necessary.”