Three Meetings With Xi Jinping

When the Chinese and Russian leaders meet, escalation is soon to follow

31 March 2023

Vitaly Portnikov

Future of Ukraine Fellow

Xi Jinping’s visit to Moscow confirmed unfortunate suspicions that China isn’t interested in peace but a Russian victory.

After the publication of China’s “peace plan” for ending Russia’s war on Ukraine, some observers in Ukraine and in Western countries interpreted it as a signal that Beijing is genuinely interested in playing the role of peacemaker while giving Russian President Vladimir Putin a chance to save face and obtain terms favourable to Moscow.

However, after President Xi Jinping’s latest visit to Moscow, the topic of Chinese peace mediation virtually disappeared from the spotlight. The talks with Putin apparently did not refine the Chinese proposals that could realistically form the basis for peace consultations. During the two-day visit, the Russian and Chinese leaders spoke about the piece plan in generalities.

The peace plan that wasn’t

On the eve of the visit, there was speculation that it would be followed by virtual negotiations between Xi and Ukrainian President Zelenskyy. The premise was that if Xi was able to exert pressure on Putin and establish more firm commitments from him, the Chinese leader would then try to convince Ukraine to accept them.

But already during the visit, it became clear there was no substance to discuss. It got funny: while Xi was still In Moscow, the possibility of his contact with Zelenskyy was denied by…Russian presidential advisor Yuri Ushakov, who explained to journalists that the guest from Beijing was too busy with his Russian visit to be distracted by communication with the Ukrainian President.

In this way, the Chinese peace plan has finally proved to be a meaningless declaration. If the author of this peace plan is not prepared to discuss it with the leaders of both opposing sides, then what is the point?

The visit confirmed the view of many sceptics that the Chinese “peace plan” was, in fact, meant to support Russia’s goals while at the same time constituted a PR ploy to portray China as a “global peace maker” as opposed to the US’s “warmongering”.

Familiar circumstances

Ultimately, Xi Jinping’s visit amounted to yet another tacit support of Russia’s goals and, therefore, escalation of the war. This would follow the pattern of earlier meetings of the two leaders.

Putin and Xi Jinping met three times between 2022 and 2023. In February 2022, their meeting took place at the opening of the Beijing Olympics. There was rife speculation that Xi would urge  Putin not to attack Ukraine during the Olympics – a view dismissed by the Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, as part of an “information campaign” against her country. But reality confirmed observers’ assumptions: the Olympics were over and the war had begun.

We do not know, of course, what Putin said to Xi Jinping in Beijing. However, the attack on Ukraine a few weeks after the meeting between the Russian and Chinese leaders can hardly be considered a mere coincidence. Even if Putin promised Xi a “limited war” rather than the actual full-scale assault, Xi must have given the Russian leader enough assurance of China’s support to go ahead with the invasion.

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The next meeting between Putin and Xi Jinping took place when the war was already intense at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in Samarkand in September 2022. At that time, the Chinese leader was expected to speak out against the war and influence Putin. Instead,  such an attempt was made by his regional antagonist and rival, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It was Modi who publicly told Putin that the 21st century was no time for war.

Xi, by contrast, said nothing. But after the meeting, Putin announced mobilisation in Russia, and the war entered a new level of escalation. Similarly, now, right after the recent meeting with Xi,  Putin announced that Russia is preparing to deploy tactical nuclear weapons on Belarusian territory.

Some experts have begun to argue that this intention is almost a slap in the face to Xi Jinping himself since the leaders of Russia and China signed a joint statement in Moscow saying not to deploy nuclear weapons outside national territories. The Chinese Foreign Ministry, however, reacted indifferently to Putin’s decision, stressing only that it was further evidence of the need for negotiations to resolve the “Ukraine crisis”.

Xi Jinping wants Russia to win

It is unlikely that Xi Jinping was unaware that such a decision would be made, especially as he met with more than just Putin. After all, prior to the Chinese leader’s visit to Moscow, Alyaksandr Lukashenka had visited Beijing.

So the facts appear merciless. The Chinese leader wants to look like a peacemaker, but every meeting with Vladimir Putin leads to an onslaught of aggression from the Russian president. And this is not at all because Xi Jinping is Putin’s “evil genius” but because the Russian president feels the support of his Chinese colleague.

And yes, I fully acknowledge that the PRC president may not be interested in a long war, but neither is he interested in Putin’s defeat. And so, after every meeting with him, the Russian president tries to raise the stakes in the hope that escalation will bring him the long-awaited success.

This nature of Xi Jinping’s influence on Putin makes it possible to draw a conclusion in the spirit of Deng Xiaoping: it does not matter what colour the cat is if it does not want to catch mice. The President of the People’s Republic of China is more interested in Russia’s success than in peace in Ukraine. And that is all that Western leaders, who will be Xi Jinping’s guests in the near future and expect China to play an effective mediating role, need to know about his intentions.

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Published as part of our Future of Ukraine Fellowship programme. Learn more about it here and consider contributing.

A Polish version was published on Onet and Res Publica Nowa.

The featured image includes: “CJCS meets with PRC Counterpart” (CC BY 2.0) by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff

Vitaly Portnikov

Future of Ukraine Fellow

Vitaly is a Visegrad Insight Fellow as of 2022. He is also an author and renowned journalist working in democratic media in Central and Eastern Europe for more than three decades. He is the author of hundreds of analytical articles in Ukrainian, Belarusian, Polish, Russian, Israeli, Baltic media. He hosts television programs and his own analytical channels on YouTube. He is currently broadcasting at the office of the Espreso TV channel in Lviv and continues to cooperate with the Ukrainian and Russian services of Radio Liberty. On the Russian service of Radio Liberty, he continues the project about the post-Soviet space “Roads to Freedom”, which was aired first from Moscow, then from Kyiv, and is now being produced in Lviv as a joint project of Radio Liberty, the Current Time TV channel and the Espreso TV channel.

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