How Far Will Xi Go to Help a Desperate Putin?

Foreign Policy, 06.10.2022
Craig Singleton, experto en China (Foundation for Defense of Democracies)
Cracks have emerged in their marriage of convenience, but the two autocrats are in it for the long haul.

Anyone who has been in a relationship knows there are good days and not so good days. While trust and respect are the bedrock of healthy partnerships, transactional and even toxic relationships have proven, time and again, to be just as durable. Sometimes more so. That is why Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s marriage of convenience will endure, not despite Russia’s recent battlefield setbacks, but because of them.

To be fair, Xi appears to be concerned about Putin’s accumulating losses in Ukraine. Chinese observers, like their Western counterparts, probably expected the war to last weeks, not months. Even fewer could have predicted Kyiv would mount successful counteroffensives striking deep into Russian-held territory. But these developments aside, Xi is unlikely to turn on Putin, even as Russia resorts to nuclear saber-rattling and sham referendums that challenge Beijing’s long-held anti-secessionist stance.

Indeed, Xi is wedded to Putin’s war because China has much to gain geopolitically from a Russian victory and potentially even more to lose from a Russian defeat. And, just as important, Xi supports Putin’s revisionism, despite the fact that Beijing has gone out its way to avoid violating sanctions which could harm its economy. That risk calculus could change, though, if Xi perceives Putin’s regime is starting to crumble, a prospect that no longer seems too remote to ignore. Even less understood is just how far Xi might go to save Putin, the results of which will test the durability of their “no-limits” partnership.

Unsurprisingly, neither Xi nor Putin attended Queen Elizabeth’s funeral in London or the United Nations General Assembly in New York last month. Their absence was intentional. Both men traveled instead to Uzbekistan for meetings of the Beijing-led Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). Xi’s and Putin’s travel priorities reflect their mutual disdain for the Western-led order, epitomized by trans-Atlanticism, Cold War-era alliances, and the established multilateral institutions. Their decision also signifies their burgeoning interest in constructing an alternate international architecture that not only reflects autocratic values but purposefully excludes the United States and its closest democratic allies. Already, Xi and Putin can boast that the SCO represents more than 40 percent of the world’s population, with more countries, like Iran and even NATO member state Turkey, seeking to join.

Like the U.N. General Assembly, the SCO summit produced little in the way of tangible results. But, unlike the U.N., the SCO is an underachiever by design. The reason: Neither Xi nor Putin want the SCO to develop into a supranational behemoth capable of lecturing its members or resolving disputes. Instead, the SCO’s hands-off mandate embodies China’s—and to a slightly lesser-extent Russia’s—desire to reset and reshape global governance narratives, often under the banner of a more just and fairer multipolar world. So far, that framing has proven appealing to many countries, such as India, that feel either maligned or ignored by the U.N. and other multilateral bodies. The SCO’s growing allure demonstrates that Xi and Putin are, indeed, capable of cobbling together new international coalitions by not requiring Western-style “like-mindedness,” including tolerance for some members condemning Russia’s Ukraine invasion and China’s support for it. But more troubling is that SCO’s growing role has hardened Xi’s view that China needs Russia’s help challenging the United States and its alliance network to hasten the West’s retrenchment from their respective peripheries.

Nevertheless, the SCO and its agenda is not what garnered the most attention at the Uzbekistan summit. What did was Putin’s suggestion that Beijing had “questions and concerns” over Russia’s actions in Ukraine, a veiled admission that China harbors doubts about Moscow’s battlefield performance. Clearly, Moscow’s efforts to redraw Europe’s borders have not gone according to plan. But Putin’s statement and Xi’s reservations, to the extent they are being interpreted (or misinterpreted), do not reflect a seismic Sino-Russian schism. More likely, they signal the growing power asymmetry between the two countries and, ominously, Beijing’s desire for Moscow to take stronger actions to win the war, not to abandon it all together.

Yet a Russian escalation will test Beijing in ways it is unaccustomed to and unprepared for. To help underwrite Putin’s revanchism, Beijing may be forced to take actions that buck its own self-seeking instincts and undercut its own national interests. For instance, to keep Russia’s economy afloat, Beijing could accept rubles as payment for anything Russia needs to buy. Doing so would, however, represent a new credit risk to the People’s Bank of China, which would in effect be bringing the Russian economy’s liabilities and risks onto its own balance sheet. These and other potential sanctions-busting measures, in turn, could accelerate China being cut off from the very Western technology and capital needed to support its development.

China’s deepening support for Putin will also degrade its ability to convincingly play both sides. Exhibit A has been China’s conflicted economic response to the war. On the one hand, total goods traded between China and Russia surged 31 percent to $117 billion during the first eight months of 2022 compared to the same period last year, and they are on track to best last year’s record of $147 billion. Chinese semiconductor sales to Russia, as well as some commodity transfers, have similarly skyrocketed. And yet, China has balked at Russian pleas for explicit military support, as well as demurred in taking concrete measures that could result in China or Chinese entities being subjected to sanctions.

Meanwhile, Moscow’s growing reliance on China has been a boon for Beijing. Taking advantage of Russia’s growing isolation, Beijing has ramped up its purchases of steeply discounted Russian oil to meet China’s current and future demand. And those semiconductor transfers? China made a tidy profit from selling some surplus chips to Russia earlier this year, even if those gains could be short-lived after the U.S. Commerce Department banned such sales in August. China has even resorted to reselling its excess liquefied natural gas purchased from the United States to European countries desperately looking to diversify their energy sources, in effect undermining Putin’s strategy of weaponizing Europe’s reliance on Russian gas. But while such double-crossing may be typical of a Chinese business mindset in which China wins twice, there is reason to suspect that Beijing may soon approach the outer limits of its fence-straddling strategy, particularly as the war takes a turn for the worse.

Will Beijing, for example, defy U.S. sanctions on semiconductors or other technology by providing Russia with the types of assistance it desperately needs to sustain its war effort? How will Xi respond if Putin follows through on his threat to use tactical nuclear weapons? Relatedly, will China acknowledge the results of Russia’s sham referendums, even though doing so could undermine China’s presumed condemnation of a Taiwanese independence referendum in the future? These and other near-term unanswered questions lay bare that as Russia’s options dwindle, so too does China’s ability to have it both ways.

As a potential Russian defeat comes into view that threatens to undermine China’s grand revisionist agenda, Xi will, perhaps sooner than he would prefer, need to consider taking bolder steps to boost Russia’s economy and war-fighting capabilities. Such support, at least at first, will probably fall well short of violating sanctions. Should the war drag on, though, China could engage in more provocative actions likely to garner an international response, including limited sanctions breaking and perhaps even nonlethal military assistance.

Nevertheless, it is difficult to fathom a scenario in which China puts Russia’s needs squarely above its own, at least not without a clear return on investment or compelling evidence that such assistance will meaningfully shift the war’s momentum in Russia’s favor. Pushback from parts of China’s vast party-state may also inhibit more intense Chinese support, with different bureaucratic constituencies fearful that violating sanctions could seriously detract from their ability to meet Xi’s ambitious development targets.

In short, Beijing will face paralysis by analysis, a quandary all too familiar from its current reticence to institute the painful but needed reforms to stabilize China’s rapidly cooling economy. And while China may yet hope that its economic woes will resolve themselves in due course, time may not be on Russia’s side. Just as troubling is that Beijing cannot fix what truly ills Putin’s war effort: massive failures of strategy, organization, command, and logistics, as well as severe shortages of manpower. As a result, Xi’s key challenge going forward may have less to do with making sure Putin wins, and more with figuring out just how far China is willing to go to make sure Putin does not lose. That may not sound much like a match made in heaven. But remember that no one ever said it would be.

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