Xi Jinping’s first overseas visit since beginning his third term as President of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) will be to Moscow next week.
This appears to reflect the “limitless” friendship between the two countries as equal partners in opposition to the US and the West, whose ambitions in Ukraine and Taiwan are a tacit indication of parallel causes.
Talks between Putin and Xi will be presented to their citizens as a meeting of great statesmen committed to building a revisionist order in the post-pax Americana world, operating beyond US influence.
But the reality is somewhat different. Xi Jinping has a clearly-articulated view of the strategic rise of China.
By 2049, Xi says, China will have become the dominant world power, once more enjoying the superior military, economic, political and cultural status that was usurped by Western imperialism in the 19th century.
Since Xi’s rise to power, all his actions, at home and overseas, have focused on achieving this objective. His vision does not include a relationship with Russia as a peer, and never will.
Putin’s vision is also framed in terms of revisionist victory over the US and its democratic allies. But his approach to renewing global influence is driven by ruthless destruction, which the current disaster in Ukraine starkly reveals.
Putin seeks, with the spurious blessing of the captured Orthodox “church”, to eradicate the democratic Ukrainian state, remove its leader and capture its unwilling people. What follows is unclear.
It also raises the question of what these expedient allies hope to achieve in tandem when their aims and capabilities are so different. The Russian economy is around a tenth the size of China’s. Though it weathered the impact of a year of sanctions, prospects look increasingly negative.
The short-term resilience displayed by “Fortress Russia” in 2022 will ebb as energy prices stabilise. Spending on social goods is already dwindling and budget deficits will grow. Industry is unsustainably focused on supplying the futile conflict in Ukraine.
Likewise, despite exaggerated claims of sustainable revival, China’s Covid-depressed, stagnating economy is in trouble. Prospects for reviving growth to pre-pandemic levels hinge on increased foreign energy imports. A major long-term source for these is Russia.
Ultimately, Xi Jinping needs only energy from Putin. Even though Beijing can bargain the price down, they will be buying such vast quantities that Russian dependency on their market is assured, and the asymmetric relationship maintained. Beijing is also seeking to sanction-proof its own economy.
Guaranteed access to Siberia’s almost limitless resources, particularly of gas, would greatly help it to do so. Putin is already diverting gas destined for the European market to pipelines stretching across taiga and steppe to China’s northern border.
Additional large-scale projects are taking shape. Putin and Gazprom take the lead, transit states such as Mongolia hope for crumbs from the high table, and China cannily takes its time, willing to wait for the moment to drive a hard price bargain.
For all the emphasis on bilateral benefits, the PRC leadership consider the Siberian Pacific seaboard, as they do Mongolia, to be their rightful territory awaiting eventual re-absorption. Neither side outdoes the other in mutual mistrust. But Xi has a different geostrategic hand to play.
He seeks to distract US military planning from his own intentions over Taiwan and the Asia-Pacific in general, perhaps judging that Putin’s aggression will divert attention from his own.
Unlike the patient strategist Deng Xiaoping, Xi has lately taken tactical risks, including by testing the line between lethal and non-lethal support for Russia in Ukraine.
The crux of the Russia-China challenge to the West is that both Xi Jinping’s cost-benefit assessment of an attack on Taiwan, and Putin’s over how far he is prepared to go to hammer Ukraine into submission, remain unknown.
It is equally hard to discern how the interplay between these two leaders will affect both crises. Publicly, at least, neither has explicitly endorsed the other’s intentions.
China dislikes being pushed around by trouble of other’s making, and may well be tiring of the reputational damage and loss of autonomy that results from such close ties with a maverick dictator in possession of nuclear weapons.
Beijing can leverage its de facto underpinning of Russia’s resource-cursed economy to its own ends. Russia needs China more than vice versa, and Beijing will turn this to the best advantage it can.
The most likely outcome is that by degrees a war-drained Russia will fall prey to overwhelming PRC influence – a strategic transformation for which the free world would be wise to prepare.