Beginning his three-day state visit to Moscow on March 20, China’s President Xi Jinping stated that relations with Russia are based on “no-alliance, no-confrontation and not targeting any third party”, even though “in a world of volatility and transformation, China will continue to work with Russia to safeguard the international system”. The joint statement issued after talks stated that bilateral relations have “reached the highest level in history”. President Vladimir Putin and President Xi have met 40 times so far.
Two contrasting narratives were generated on the eve of Xi’s Moscow visit. One, that in the backdrop of foreign policy Czar Wang Yi’s European tour recently about a peace plan for the war on Ukraine that seemed to be never ending since its launch on February 24 last year. China had also come out with a 12-point position paper on the Ukraine conflict which emphasized on negotiations, protection of sovereignty and territorial integrity but also opposing the “Cold War mentality”.
The last one – that of opposing cold war mentality- is a code word for the Sino-Russian joint opposition to the western policies and has been cobbled up sinceJuly 2001 in strategic partnership that became recently a “comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination in a new era”. It manifested in a joint stance at the United Nations Security Council, emphasis on global governance rather than rule of law, opposing the United States and the NATO, G20, BRICS, SCO, on North Korean nuclear programme, Afghanistan, merger of China’s Belt and Road Initiative and Eurasian Economic Union and others.
At the bilateral level, such coordination is reflected on counter-terrorism, cyber security, energy, outer space cooperation, defense cooperation and on joint military exercises. In reality, this aspect of furthering such coordination is the basis for Xi’ visit to Moscow.
Indeed, despite expectations that Xi would come out with an action plan on peace in Ukraine, there was no concrete statement in this regard, except to reiterate their respective known positions. For instance, the joint statement referred to “legitimate security concerns of all countries must be respected” and that a “responsible dialogue” should be carried forward. On the other hand, both expressed “firm support in safeguarding their respective core interests”. It is not clear how China’s support to Russia will manifest but consensus emerged between both to embark and strengthen their united front against the western countries.
Both reiterated their opposition to the NATO expansion, the Indo-Pacific strategy, AUKUS and other initiatives recently and termed these as “small circles targeting specific countries”. Both reiterated to work for a multipolar world. Xi’s statement at the October 2022 20th party congress and the recent plenary session earlier this month critical of the United States were well-timed for the current Moscow visit.
The focus of the visit was also on 14 agreements and memoranda of understanding on various bilateral issues like enhancing economic ties to over $200 billion in trade, and other fields. However, the issues mentioned here make for no big-ticket items, but incremental rather than quantum jump in the bilateral relations.
As Russia is deeply entrenched in the Ukrainian conflict, China saw this as an opportunity and its Ministry of Natural Resources renamed Russian Far Eastern places like Vladivostok and Sakhalin into Haishenwai and Kuyedao respectively. As China is engineering demographic changes in Siberia, Russia’s Nelson Eye to such actions will be detrimental to its hold over the region. Earlier, China provoked India by changing the names in Arunachal Pradesh and began constructing 624 “well-off society villages”. Even though such measures are hollow in nature, these Chinese acts reflect irredentist claims.
Significantly, Xi appeared to be leaving the resolution of the Ukraine issue to Russia, despite donning “peace negotiator” clothes, while seeking Moscow’s blessings to invade Taiwan. Given the watered-down version of Xi’s Ukraine-related agenda, it is likely that a quid pro quo has emerged between Beijing and Moscow on these “core interests”.
However, China’s assiduously built narrative on sovereignty stands exposed. China’s position on Ukraine that the sovereignty of nations should not be violated only evokes its double standards. For instance, for decades China stated that the western sector of the border with India is a “disputed territory”, but changed its position in 2020 to claim “sovereignty” over the Galwan region that resulted in violence, blood and death of soldiers.
Again, China mentioned in the joint statement with Russia that “dialogue rather than confrontation” should be practiced. However, even after 17 rounds of Corps Commanders level meetings and 26 rounds of Working Mechanism for Consultation & Coordination on India-China Border Affairs, no resolution in the border crises is visible.
China and Russia coming together has negative connotations for India. The joint statement mentions both as “priority cooperative partners”. While both have significant differences and even went to border clashes in 1969, China’s successful ability to exploit current Russian complications is likely to increase Russian dependence on China. Russia playing second fiddle to a rising China could restrict the strategic space for India in the coming years, including in cutting-edge arms transfers.
This article was first published in the Financial Express as Pursuing United Front against the West – Xi Jinping’s visit to Moscow on March 23, 2023.
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