Xi seeks to distance himself from Putin, with an eye on China’s own dispute with the U.S.
The war in Ukraine has its origins in the disarray that the implosion of the Soviet Union and the Cold War left Russia and its neighborhood in 30 years ago. When the war ends, it may have helped mold new chapters in a redesigned version of the conflict, starring the same United States as before and now, an emergent China.
Chinese leader Xi Jinping is the big hidden subject of the crisis unfolding in Western Europe. As Vladimir Putin’s key ally, he extended the red carpet to the Russian president 20 days before the war, and offered an unofficial treaty of “eternal friendship.”
According to unconfirmed reports, Xi was advised about the Feb. 24 Russian action, and he asked if the invasion could take place after the end of the Winter Olympic Games in Beijing on day 20.
In that and in other previous meetings, China told Putin that both nations needed to confront the West and its pressure together, particularly the economic sanctions.
In the irrepressible economic accession of the country, Beijing has always sought to leave the subject of the military in the background. Moreover, because of its economic interdependence on the West, the dictator knows that war can be very bad for business.
But Xi’s assertiveness has not failed to go unnoticed outside of China, including Xi’s growing aggression in relation to Taiwan.
Thus, the U.S. and its Indo-Pacific allies have tried to bell the cat, warning that Taiwan is not Ukraine. This is inaccurate, because however he behaves, Vladimir Putin doesn’t officially base his policy on the theory that a neighbor is his property as Xi does when he speaks of the autonomous island.
Since the war broke out, the Chinese leader has tried to stay in the shadows. He said that China’s alliance with Putin remains unshakeable, and he did not condemn the conflict during a vote in the United Nations nor criticize the tough sanctions on Moscow. He has advocated, throughout, a cease-fire, and has offered to facilitate discussion.
Xi is watching the situation because he knows it could be China that confronts the West in the future. If the trade war with the U.S., which marked a rehearsal for a new Cold War under Donald Trump in 2017 has already caused distress, a larger regime of sanctions would be a nightmare.
The fact is that, even more so than in the current situation, at least as long as the impact on the petroleum market doesn’t worsen, such a dispute would be potentially destructive for the whole world. Maybe a new stage in the Chinese-American conflict will emerge from this dynamic, with Moscow aligned with Beijing.
Russia can still breathe without Chinese oxygen, but this could change, putting more pressure on Xi to assume the role which he could play now, that of a mediator in a possible peace.
*Editor’s note: The original Portuguese version of this article is available with a subscription.