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China's Putin Play
February 23, 2023
The last few days has been “Superpower Week” — a lengthy, televised version of geopolitical theater beginning with full-throated support for Ukraine’s struggle by European leaders at the Munich Security Conference between February 17 and 19. The next day President Joe Biden pulled off a dramatic, unannounced appearance in Kyiv pledging “unwavering support”, then, on February 21, he addressed a mass gathering in Warsaw in front of its Royal Palace. That same night, Vladimir Putin took the stage in Moscow to deliver a keynote claiming that Ukraine started the war, even though it didn’t, and that it would last for years. Interestingly, President Xi Jinping of China was missing, nowhere to be seen. Instead, he sent his top diplomat to Munich to communicate China’s desire for peace, then slipped him into Moscow after Putin’s rant to privately meet with him. No fixed date was announced for Xi to meet Putin, as promised, because China’s strategy is to sideline itself from the Kremlin.
The NATO alliance is enormous and powerful — equivalent to 70 percent of the world’s GDP and military strength — while Russia’s only ally is an absent Xi and fellow pariah nation Iran. China distances because it realizes that Putin is not a Superpower, will run out of ammo, will be defeated, and will always remain a geopolitical outcast. But China also equivocates: It does not reject, condemn, or support Russia’s invasion; and strikes a “passive aggressive” posture which consists of abstaining from voting against Russia at the United Nations and of saying nothing.
Such mealy-mouthed behavior is uncharacteristic of hegemons like China, but it is strategic. Russia may fall apart, providing China with an opportunity to snap up Russian regions located in Asia. It is also personal. Putin did not tip off Xi about the invasion ahead of time when they met last year at the Beijing Olympic Games. As Russian troops amassed along Ukraine’s border, the two posed for selfies and declared themselves friends “without limits”. Then a few days later Putin upended modern history and the global economy by invading, raping, and pillaging his innocent neighbor. It was not only embarrassing but costly. China has billions invested in Ukraine and Europe.
Now one year later, the United States and Europe impose sanctions and punish nations providing Russia with direct military assistance. This threat has been heeded by China, as has the fact that America has forged a similar alliance in Asia, called the Quad, which would make an invasion or blockade of Taiwan impossibly difficult or dangerous. Furthermore, China’s customers in Europe demand that China stop twiddling its thumbs and help stop Putin from further murder and mayhem in Ukraine.
In response, China announced it will roll out its “peace plan” on February 24, the invasion’s anniversary when Russia is expected to saturation bomb Ukraine. According to reports, the “plan” is all but pointless because it ignores President Volodymyr Zelensky’s demands that Russian forces withdraw from Ukraine’s borders, Moscow pay reparations, and Russia submits to war-crime tribunals. Bloomberg said China’s plan is a series of aspirations, not concrete measures, such as respect for territorial integrity, security for nuclear facilities, bans on the use of biological and chemical weapons, a ceasefire, and a halt to arms deliveries to Ukraine (not Russia). It’s a complete non-starter.
But that didn’t stop Beijing’s mouthpiece, Global Times, from patting Xi on the back for his peace initiative ahead of time. It wrote: “Experts said [Xi’s top diplomat] Wang's meetings with the top leader and senior officials of Russia show that Moscow values highly its strategic ties with China and is also treating China's idea on the Ukraine issue seriously, and this is proof of China's unique influence for mediation purposes.”
Strategically speaking, China is not a neutral. It is an accomplice. Its energy imports from Russia, along with India’s, have kept the Russian regime afloat. Now Putin badgers them for armaments and this week the Americans accused China of planning to send lethal military aid to Russia. This was denied and won’t happen. If it does, the consequences will greatly damage China.
China’s support for Putin also makes no sense economically, apart from cheap energy, which is why Xi recently made a state visit to Saudi Arabia to secure supplies should Russia fall apart. Beijing “doesn’t need Putin or Russia” and isn’t one of its ten biggest trading partners, said Yale University business professor Jeffrey Sonnenfeld. He has chronicled corporate departures from Russia and pointed out that three of the biggest corporate exits from Russia following the attack against Ukraine were Chinese: Sinochem, a state-owned chemical, fertilizer and oil conglomerate; Sinopec, a Chinese oil and gas enterprise; and one of its biggest financial groups, the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China Limited.
Xi pays lip service to peace but subsidizes Russia with oil purchases. Europeans are angry, after they have stopped buying Putin’s energy at great cost to their economies. They expect Xi to put pressure on Putin to stop this war and if he doesn’t, China’s prospects will suffer. The world’s silent Superpower must finally wade in and end its equivocation. So-called neutrality and trading with the enemy are mutually exclusive. As Apartheid fighter Desmond Tutu wisely stated to fence-sitters years ago: “To be neutral is to back the aggressor”.