Hutong Cat | Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin: Friends with strategic benefits
Over the years, Xi and Putin seem to have developed a strong personal relationship seemingly enabling them to overcome some of the historical mistrust that has plagued Sino-Russia relations. This was evident in Xi's recent visit
Russian ice cream and occasionally the country’s iconic drink vodka have been served as motifs of culture and friendship in curated official narratives when China’s President Xi Jinping meets his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, be it in Dushanbe in Tajikistan in 2019, in Hangzhou in eastern China in 2016 or in Moscow this time.
It’s a ploy to show the seemingly softer, easygoing sides of the two deeply authoritarian strongmen leaders whose private lives, especially Xi’s, are closely guarded as secrets of the state.
It is also part of the optics to portray a snug friendship between the two leaders — good friend Putin remembers Xi’s love for the Russian dessert — and the apparently deepening cultural affinity between the people of the two countries with their leaders taking the lead and showing the path.
“For sure,” Russian presidential spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, said before Xi’s visit on March 20, according to Russia’s TASS news agency, to the question whether the Chinese leader would be treated to Russian ice cream.
“Ice cream is always ready. Xi loves it,” Peskov said.
Calculated camaraderie was put on display.
Like the video of Xi’s departure on Wednesday, which was filmed with translators speaking for both men and reported by the New York Times and Al Jazeera.
“Right now, there are changes — the likes of which we haven’t seen for 100 years — and we are the ones driving these changes together,” Xi told Putin at a Kremlin door as he was leaving.
Putin responded: “I agree.”
Xi is then seen extending his hand to shake Putin’s, saying: “Take care please, dear friend.” Putin responded by holding Xi’s hand with both of his and saying, “Have a safe trip.”
Ice cream, friendship, two joint statements and not-much sympathy for Ukrainians were put on display for all to see during Xi’s March 20-22 visit to Moscow.
It was his 13th visit after becoming president in 2013, and overall, his 40th meeting with Putin.
Over the years, and over their dozens of interactions, Xi and Putin seem to have developed a strong personal relationship seemingly enabling them to overcome some of the historical mistrust that has plagued Sino-Russia relations.
Xi’s visit gave a solid boost to isolated Putin, coming within days of the latter being charged with alleged war crimes in Ukraine.
The visit, however, failed to make any direct or immediate breakthrough in stopping the war in Ukraine, which started in February 2022 when Russia invaded the east European country. Also, the Chinese President only reiterated Beijing's official stance that China is an “impartial” party to Russia's war in Ukraine. Putin, in turn, supported “China’s Position on the Political Settlement of the Ukraine Crisis”, the 12-point proposal released by Beijing in February.
On Ukraine, of course, China is also solidly behind Russia, though Beijing could be internally worried as the war shows no sign of stopping.
“Russia hopes that China can become more involved in Ukraine, as a China with a clearly pro-Russian stance would be advantageous for Russia. However, China is still avoiding direct involvement in the conflict and has not provided any weapons or equipment to Russia. In my view, China has consistently refused such demands from Russia. Therefore, Russia hopes that China can provide more economic and technological support,” Kung Chan, geopolitical expert and founder of Beijing-based Anbound think-tank, said.
Wang Huiyao, president of the Beijing-based Centre for China and Globalisation, said Beijing had already given a “strong message” by talking against the use of nuclear weapons in the war, and since then, Moscow hasn't talked about it.
“China is the only country not directly involved in the war and is in a good position,” Wang said.
“China's idea is to lead and promote peace in Ukraine… If China can lead the achievement of peace in Ukraine, accomplishing something that many countries and international organizations fail to do, then its status in the world will be greatly different, even becoming one of the true powers in the world,” Kung, quoted earlier, said.
The Ukraine war aside, Xi’s trip underscored the deepening strategic partnership between Beijing and Moscow, which has been driven by a number of shared interests, primary among them, the two powers’ shared antipathy to the United States (US)-led West.
The two joint statements issued during the visit, including their commitment to promoting a multipolar world and opposing – what they perceive -- any attempt to monopolise international affairs, reflected a studied effort to oppose Washington’s influence globally.
Xi and Putin said they will work together to push back against the US’s Indo-Pacific strategy involving the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue and AUKUS (Australia, the United Kingdom, and the US).
The two also said they will oppose attempts to “politicise” multilateral platforms, already putting up questions ahead of the G20 summit to be held in India later this year.
For Beijing, Xi’s visit was part of China’s broader effort to diversify its international relationships and counter-balance the US-led alliance system: Xi headed to Moscow fresh from Beijing’s unexpected breakthrough in gathering hostile Iran and Saudi Arabia on the same table less than two weeks ago to ease their bilateral ties.
China-Russia ties have been strengthened over the year by the two countries' shared opposition to the US missile defence system in Northeast Asia, their partnership in energy and infrastructure development (think China’s Belt and Road Initiative and Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union), and their coordination on foreign policy issues like North Korea, Iran and Syria.
US National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby, the Associated Press reported, described the Putin-Xi relationship as “a marriage of convenience,” in which they pool efforts to challenge US leadership, and the Russians “certainly are the junior partner.” He added at a briefing earlier this week that Putin sees Xi as “a lifeline of sorts” amid the fighting in Ukraine.
The conveniences are these: While Russia is struggling with economic sanctions from the West, it expects a “lifeline” from Beijing, and China is looking to expand its global influence and emerge as a peacemaker while attempting to paint Washington in a negative shade.
However, it remains to be seen how sustainable the China-Russia partnership will be in the long run, as both have their own strategic priorities and vulnerabilities. The fact that China has yet to officially endorse Russia's annexation of Crimea, for instance, suggests that there are limits to their alignment.
Sutirtho Patranobis, HT’s experienced China hand, writes a weekly column from Beijing, exclusively for HT Premium readers. He was previously posted in Colombo, Sri Lanka, where he covered the final phase of the civil war and its aftermath, and was based in Delhi for several years before that
The views expressed are personal