The last time Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin met face-to-face, they triumphantly announced the dawn of a “new era” in international relations, CNN reported.
Amid the Western diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics and the looming crisis in Ukraine, the world’s two most powerful autocrats shared their vision for a new world order. One that will better suit the interests of their countries, and which will not be dominated by the West.
In a 5,000-word joint statement, the two leaders declared friendship “without borders” and outlined their shared concerns about the United States and its allies.
“The world is going through fateful changes,” they said in their joint statement, noting “the transformation of the global governance architecture and world order.”
More than 200 days later, Jinping and Putin will meet again at a summit in the southeastern Uzbekistan city of Samarkand. A lot has changed, but not necessarily in a way that China or Russia could have predicted.
Three weeks after meeting with Xi in Beijing – and just days after the end of the Winter Olympics, Putin launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. He expected a quick victory, but seven months later, Russia is still a long way from success. Its forces are exhausted, demoralized and fleeing the territories they have occupied for months.
This worries China. Having become closer to Moscow, Beijing has a direct interest in the development of the war. A defeated Russia would strengthen the West and make it a less useful and reliable asset in China’s rivalry with the US as a great power. A weakened Moscow could also distract the US, thereby allowing Washington to focus more clearly on Beijing.
Jinping has a fine line to walk. If it leans too far toward helping Russia, it risks exposing China to Western sanctions and diplomatic pushback that would harm its own interests. The backlash would also come at a delicate time for Xi, who is just weeks away from running for a third term at the 20th Party Congress.
So far, the two authoritarian powers have come no closer to shaping the world order in their favor – if anything, experts say, the Russia-Ukraine war has served to strengthen Western resolve.
For Putin, the invasion of Ukraine is likely the first step toward removing Russia from the post-World War II and post-Cold War international order.
A quick seizure of Ukraine would deal a painful blow to NATO, expand Moscow’s sphere of influence, and significantly shift the balance of power in Europe in Russia’s favor.
A Russian victory could also set a serious precedent for China, which has vowed to “unite” with the self-governing democracy in Taiwan – by force if necessary.
Under the leadership of Jinping, Beijing is already increasing its military activity around the island. An easy victory for Putin would further deepen the Chinese leader’s conviction that the West is in decline. This, in turn, would provide a template for an attack on Taiwan, an event of enormous consequence that could change the world’s balance of power.
Ukraine hit back, however, and instead of sabotaging the US-led order, the invasion reinvigorated NATO, strengthened transatlantic ties and united the West.
Meanwhile, Putin’s meeting with Xi could not have come at a more inopportune time. Russian forces are retreating en masse in northeastern Ukraine, having lost more territory in one week than they gained in five months.
While it is still too early to predict an outcome, even the prospect of Russia losing the war is enough to make Beijing worry.
Russia’s failure in Ukraine is already starting to provoke a significant political pushback in Moscow. A total defeat could lead to political destabilization in the Kremlin – and serious headaches for China.
While deepening relations between China and Russia are primarily driven by tensions against the West, they are also driven in part by the close personal relationship between Jinping and Putin. During his decade in power, Jinping met Putin 38 times – twice as many as any other world leader.
There is no guarantee that a Russia without Putin would be so inclined to maintain friendship with Beijing. At worst, it could even become friendlier to the West, heightening long-standing Chinese fears of geopolitical encirclement by the US.
Measuring personal interests
The question is how far is Jinping willing to go to ensure that Putin remains in control and that Russia remains a powerful strategic security partner to counterbalance America.
For its part, China abstained from voting against Russia at the UN. She blames NATO and the US for the war and criticizes Western sanctions against Moscow. China has also increased economic aid to its neighbor, with bilateral trade reaching record levels.
“China is willing to give Russia tacit political, diplomatic and to some extent economic support, but the main thing is that it will not go out of its way and undermine its other strategic goals to support Russia,” says Brian Hart, fellow in the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Until now, Beijing has carefully avoided actions that could lead to violations of Western sanctions – such as providing direct military aid to Moscow, for example. Access to the global market is critical for China, especially when its economy is already beset by serious problems, from slowing growth to soaring youth unemployment to a housing market collapse.
According to Hart, the activity that should be monitored is the arms trade. China has long been one of Russia’s biggest arms buyers. “I wonder if Russia’s own defense industry is overwhelmed, whether it will turn to buying weapons from China,” he said.
But even then, China would likely seek to send spare parts or products that are not on the sanctions list, or ship them via complex routes that are difficult to trace.
“Beijing and Moscow have repeatedly stated that they do not intend to create a formal alliance that binds them in a way that runs counter to their interests. This did not work for them during the Sino-Soviet alliance in the 1950s and I think they really look at it as a history lesson,” Hart said.
“I think that China will continue to strengthen its relations with Russia to the extent that it is really in their common interest,” he added.
Even before Russia’s war woes, its military aggression against Ukraine and Beijing’s tacit support, had already alienated some countries from the Western orbit.
When Jinping and Putin meet with other leaders of the eight Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) nations in Uzbekistan on Thursday and Friday, the topic of the war in Ukraine will be the elephant in the room.
China’s refusal to condemn Russia has caused concern among Central Asian countries, said Niva Yau, a senior researcher at the OSCE Academy.
“China is at odds with countries in the region because it still views the Russia-Ukraine war as if it is about to topple Western hegemony,” she said.
That risks hampering China’s efforts to build stronger ties with its Central Asian neighbors, an endeavor in which China has invested heavily over two decades, according to Yau.
During Xi Jinping’s state visit to Kazakhstan on Wednesday – his first trip abroad in nearly 1,000 days – the Chinese leader sought to allay those concerns.
“China will always support Kazakhstan in preserving national independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Xi told Kazakh President Tokayev, according to Chinese state media.
An anti-Western world order?
However, Jinping’s trip to Central Asia is not just to show his support for Putin. It is also related to strengthening ties in China’s periphery and asserting Beijing’s global influence.
Founded by China in 2001 to fight terrorism and promote border security, the SCO was shrouded in relative obscurity for years. Under Xi’s leadership, it has grown in size and profile, granting membership to India and Pakistan in 2017.
After years on the waiting list as an observer, Iran is expected to become a full member of this summit, according to reports in Chinese state media.
Afghanistan is also an observer, and the Taliban, who seized Kabul after the chaotic US withdrawal last year, are sending a delegation to Samarkand.
Iran is causing the greatest concern in the West. Since 2019, Iran, Russia and China have held three joint naval exercises amid deepening ties. Now, Iran’s expected inclusion in the SCO is fueling long-held fears by some observers that the grouping is emerging as an anti-Western bloc.
Some experts argue that the SCO in its current state is not the ideal platform for China and Russia to impose an anti-Western world order.
As a multilateral organization, the SCO is a much weaker regional bloc than the European Union or the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
“There’s actually been some tension in the SCO at times. Russia is trying to push its own interests, which don’t always coincide with China’s. I don’t think it’s ideally equipped to be a kind of platform for shaping a new world order,” Hart says in CSIS.
The picture is also complicated by the presence of India, which has had strong ties with Russia since the Cold War. But Delhi is also on bad terms with Beijing over their border disputes and has drawn closer to Washington and its allies in the Indo-Pacific region.
India is a member of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue along with the US, Japan and Australia, a group that has been drawn closer by threats from China.
However, Xi will use the SCO summit to show both his home audience and the world that despite diplomatic isolation from the West, China still has friends and partners and is ready to take on greater role on the world stage.
But if the war in Ukraine turns out to be an important turning point in Russia’s weakening, it could derail the Chinese leader’s plans.
“China doesn’t really have any other major partners, like the United States has European and Indo-Pacific allies that it can rely on. So Russia represents the most powerful country that is closely tied to China,” Hart says.
“I think that’s something that Beijing also worries about — that Russia will spread too far and that could undermine their collective efforts to shape the world order.”