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Decoding China: The limits to Xi's influence on Putin

Dang Yuan | Wesley Rahn
May 17, 2024

As Vladimir Putin wraps up a visit to Beijing, it is becoming clearer that Chinese President Xi Jinping's ability to influence the Russian president on Ukraine is more limited than some may think.

Putin and Xi sitting in red chairs at a concert
The leaders of Russia and China are said to pursue a 'no limits' partnership between their countriesImage: Sergei Guneyev/AFP/Getty Images

Chinese President Xi Jinping welcomed Russian President Vladimir Putin to Beijing this week, and poured praise on "hard-earned" diplomatic relations between China and Russia that have "stood the test" of a changing international landscape.

And now, Moscow's close cooperation with China is taking on even more significance. After Russia launched a war of aggression on Ukraine in February 2022, just days after Putin and Xi lauded their "no limits" partnership, Russia has become more internationally isolated due to US and EU sanctions. Since then, China has provided a vital economic lifeline to Russia, and has held back from explicitly condemning Russia's invasion.

A week ago, Putin appointed economist Andrei Belousov as Russia's defense minister. Belousov also traveled with Putin to China. The Kremlin chief knows only too well how important Belousov's expertise is. Raw materials are urgently needed for arms production, and China can supply them.

Putin-Xi summit heavy on symbolism

Now, Putin is extending his hand to his "beloved old friend" Xi. Russia and China are at an "unprecedentedly high level of strategic partnership," he said.

In Beijing, Putin was treated to an opulent banquet complete with Peking Duck, sea cucumber and sea bass in shrimp cream.

A joint statement issued Thursday after the meeting between Xi and Putin focused on "deepening comprehensive partnership and strategic cooperation entering a new era."

The question is whether China is serious. Peter Qiu, president of the Hong Kong Center for Globalization (CGHK), told DW that even if both countries want to demonstrate unity, actions speak louder than words.

Putin and Xi hail strategic ties, address Ukraine conflict

China's empty 'initiatives' on Ukraine

Anyone who had hoped that Xi would put pressure on Putin to change track on his war against Ukraine will be disappointed. The summit's final declaration offered up the same empty phrases that the world has become familiar with since Moscow launched the war.

Both leaders stated they are against "further escalation" of the war in Ukraine and expressed their interest in a "political solution."

China remains neutral, Xi reiterated, calling for a "balanced, effective and sustainable" security structure in the region.

"China expects that peace and stability on the European continent will be restored as soon as possible," Xi said. "China is happy to make its constructive contributions to this," Xi said. 

"We are grateful to our Chinese friends and colleagues for the initiatives they are putting forward to resolve this problem," Putin said, speaking alongside Xi. 

However, these calls for "deescalation" ignore the fact that Russia has launched a new offensive in northeastern Ukraine, and has continued to pound civilian infrastructure with airstrikes. China has, thus far, done little to nothing on putting forward actual "initiatives" to stop the war.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has accused Beijing of supplying Russia with critical components that enable Moscow's war machine to continue running. China has repeatedly denied these allegations.

China not a neutral mediator on Ukraine

Nevertheless, Beijing's echoing of Russia's positions, combined with its strong support for Moscow, would make it difficult for Ukraine and its allies to accept China as a mediator, said Helena Legarda, lead analyst at the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS) in Berlin.

"Beijing presents itself as a potential mediator between Russia and Ukraine, like it does on other conflicts. But its appetite to actually get involved in a mediation process and do the heavy lifting of moderating discussions, extracting concessions and proposing potential solutions has been very limited so far," Legarda told DW.

"China's leadership is prioritizing geopolitical concerns," she added.

And although China and Russia have a very close relationship, "this doesn't imply that Russia will do as China says," Legarda said.

"Beijing does have some influence over Russia, especially now that Russia has become more economically dependent on China, but Xi's ability to strongly influence Putin's decisions about Ukraine is likely much more limited than some think," she added.

Effective mediation does not require complete neutrality, but it does require that the parties involved in the conflict view the mediator as "honest." This has not been the case with China so far.

Xi and Putin's 'no limits' friendship has limits

Political giant, economic dwarf

Russia is the world's largest country by land mass. Economically, however, it is a dwarf compared to China. Russia's gross domestic product in 2023 was estimated at $2 trillion (€1.85 trillion), barely above the GDP of China's economically strongest province of Guangdong.

At the same time, the bilateral trade between China and Russia is growing. In 2018, the trade balance was still at $100 billion. In 2024, it was more than double that.

By 2030, goods worth $300 billion per year are to be exchanged between China and Russia, reported Russian news website Sputnik, citing the Moscow Ministry of Economic Affairs after the Putin-Xi meeting on Thursday.

"Russia would like to see a clear commitment from Beijing that China is committed to deeper economic exchange," said Hong Kong-based expert Qiu.

On the second stop of his China trip , Putin visited a trade fair in the northern Chinese city of Harbin. Russia plans to set up a new center for the wholesale of agricultural products in the city, selling meat, sweets, fish and dairy products. The name: "Good Food Russia."

Also included in Putin's entourage were top representatives of financial companies. 

Legarda said that Putin's visit, coming right after Xi returned from a three-country tour of Europe, sends a "very clear message" that China and Russia continue to see each other as "preferential partners and are looking for ways to deepen their relationship, especially in the economic sphere."

Both leaders want to signal that this "will continue to be the case in spite of mounting Western pressure over Ukraine or US sanctions," she added.

China and Russia — true friends or marriage of convenience?

This article has been translated from German 

"Decoding China" is a DW series that examines Chinese positions and arguments on current international issues from a critical German and European perspective.

Wesley Rahn Editor and reporter focusing on geopolitics and Asia