Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping’s three-day summit in Moscow neither advanced a much-hyped peace plan in Ukraine nor an agreement for China to supply Russia with military aid. But the leaders found common ground on one issue: It’s time to end the current U.S.-led world order.
Putin and Xi spent days before the summit saying as much in a set of carefully choreographed opinion pieces. In the Chinese Communist Party-run People’s Daily, Putin accused NATO of expanding “with an eye toward the Asia-Pacific region” in an effort to contain China. In the Russian state-controlled Rossiyskaya Gazeta, Xi said his upcoming trip marked a step toward “multipolarity,” a term used by both great powers to describe their preferred alternative to an American-dominated international system. Both stressed the two countries’ growing “friendship” in the face of a mutual adversary: the United States.
Xi and Putin leaned into that friendship throughout this week’s meetings, clinking glasses for photographers, heaping praise on one another’s leadership style, and sharing animated discussion about their envisioned global order. “Change is coming,” the Chinese president reportedly said as he prepared to depart Moscow on Wednesday, bidding farewell to his “dear friend.”
While Putin strains under U.S.-led sanctions for his invasion of Ukraine, Xi is eyeing Washington’s strengthened diplomatic and military ties to Taiwan, efforts to unite East Asian allies Japan and South Korea, and AUKUS—a years-in-the-making partnership with the United Kingdom and Australia that recently unveiled a $40 billion submarine deal. A joint statement from Xi and Putin denounced the “negative impact on peace and stability” Washington’s “Cold War mentality” has had in the Indo-Pacific. In response, the autocratic leaders noted plans to “further deepen military mutual trust” between their two countries by continuing joint military exercises worldwide.
“It’s a marriage of convenience in a lot of ways,” said Jim Townsend, former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for Europe and NATO. “They want to be seen as a counterbalance to the West and the United States.”
Yet Xi’s trip also underscored the limits of what was once described as Russia and China’s “no limits” friendship—a phrase that entered the two countries’ communiqués shortly before Putin’s invasion last year but was notably absent from their joint statement this time around.
In the lead-up to the meetings, Putin alluded several times to a proposed natural gas pipeline from Russia to China by way of Mongolia, which would provide the Kremlin with a badly needed stream of revenue as Europe cuts its energy dependence on Russia. But China, already Russia’s number one trading partner and the top purchaser of its fossil fuels, doesn’t seem to have gotten on board over the course of the days-long summit. The joint statement contained only vague plans to “advance work” on a possible agreement.
The biggest disappointment, however, may have come from what appears to be Xi’s continued reluctance to supply Russia with weapons amid its war in Ukraine. CIA Director Bill Burns warned this month that Beijing may be considering providing Russian forces with “lethal aid,” but warned of “consequences” should such assistance come to pass.
The Chinese leader seems to have taken the threats to heart, at least for now. Arming Russia would bring about diplomatic and economic backlash Xi is likely unwilling to incur, particularly as China’s economy continues to recover from COVID-19 and the government’s draconian pandemic restrictions.
The two parties also failed to advance China’s 12-point “peace plan” for Ukraine, which called for an end to unilateral sanctions on Russia, resumed peace talks, and a ceasefire that—as worded—could lock in Putin’s territorial gains in Ukraine.
Xi and Putin blamed the stalled progress on the West, which has criticized China’s plan as one-sided. While China’s proposed settlement is “consonant with the Russian stance and can be taken as a foundation for a peaceful settlement,” Putin reportedly said, “we have not observed” readiness from the West or Ukraine to end the conflict. On the sidelines of the summit, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov accused the U.S. of barring Ukraine from participating in peace talks. “They simply do not let Kyiv even think about it,” Peskov alleged, per Russian media accounts.
U.S. officials, meanwhile, implicitly accused China of trying to foist an unfavorable settlement on Ukraine while purporting to be a neutral broker.
“Calling for a ceasefire that does not include the removal of Russian forces from Ukrainian territory would effectively be supporting the ratification of Russian conquest. It would recognize Russia’s attempts to seize a sovereign neighbor’s territory by force,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters Monday. “And a ceasefire now, without a durable solution, would allow President Putin to rest and refit his troops and then restart the war at a time more advantageous to Russia. The world should not be fooled by any tactical move by Russia—supported by China or any other country—to freeze the war on its own terms.”
Xi hasn’t spoken with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky since Russia invaded, and China continues to provide Russia with monetary and diplomatic lifelines: The countries’ bilateral trade increased by nearly 30 percent in 2022, up to a record high of $190 billion, and China’s refusal to denounce Russia’s invasion on the global stage has afforded Putin political cover.
That’s likely to continue. Though Putin may not have gotten all he wanted from this summit with Xi, analysts warn it signals their growing cooperation to oppose Western interests worldwide.
“The U.S. national security strategy calls China the pacing threat and Russia the acute challenge, and they know they can maximize their leverage by working more closely together,” Patrick Cronin, Asia-Pacific security chair at the Hudson Institute. “All in all, the trip was what I expected: big on showmanship, concealing the most important elements, and demonstrating that China and Russia are not fit for leading the global order.”