Last week, within days of the International Criminal Court issuing arrest warrants for Russia’s President Vladimir Putin for war crimes, China’s President Xi paid a visit to Moscow. Ahead of the summit, China advertised the meeting as one designed to promote peace. This characterization echoed China’s recent move to help broker a resumption of diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The question ahead of the summit was how exactly China would promote peace. One option would be to put pressure on Putin to either withdraw from Ukraine or reduce war aims publicly to something that might lead to a negotiated settlement. A second option would be for Beijing to openly offer to arm or supply Russia in a manner that would pressure Ukraine and its Western backers to come to the negotiating table.
In the end, the summit produced very little in terms of substantive agreements. At best, Putin gained symbolically, showing that he was not that isolated on the global stage. In addition, China and Russia showed solidarity in their continued, shared, goal of providing an alternative to the America-centric international order.
While all states pursue their own interests in any international interaction – whether economic or political – China has repeatedly maintained that Chinese interests are at the center of its policies. Chinese interests, in turn, are those of the ruling Communist Party, which means the interests of President Xi and his backers. It appears that China did not see it in its interests to concretely bolster Russia’s military or economic strength in its contest with Ukraine and the West. No public agreements were reached on China beginning to supply arms to Russia. In fact, there was no evidence that such issues were discussed. Russia wanted China to commit at the summit to a Siberian gas project that would mean an increased export of Russian gas to China. No such agreement was reached or announced. Meanwhile, the language in the communique looked strikingly similar to that issued after a meeting of the two presidents a year ago. The language on Ukraine was minimal and vague – not a “peace push” as advertised by China ahead of the summit.
So, if no concrete short-term agreements were made at the summit, what should one take away from the meeting? First, the meeting underscores that the long-terms interests of China and Russia in terms of the international system are somewhat aligned as a counter to the collective West. The two will continue to bolster multilateral organizations that exclude the West such as the Shanghai Cooperative Organization and the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, and China). The relationship between these two countries is more than a marriage of convenience.
Second, the summit showed that China is now the senior partner in the arrangement, and Xi will be happy to dictate the parameters of the relationship in a way that maximally benefits China.