Last year began with the announcement of Friendship Without Borders at the Olympic Games. This year it opens with Putin and Xi who talk about “unprecedented pressure” from the West in a virtual meeting. But while the Russian head of state describes the climate between the two powers as “the best in history” that “can withstand any challenge”, his Chinese counterpart speaks of a “strengthening of strategic coordination” in order “to bring more stability to the world “.
A difficult year for Friends Without Borders
Over the past year, especially since the outbreak of war in Ukraine, The relationship between the two countries has changed significantly. The first signs were already evident in the Chinese government’s reaction to the invasion, which later stated that it had not been alarmed by Moscow.
In March we explained here on Fanpage.it why Russia today historically represents everything that China doesn’t want to be and what contradictions got Beijing into big trouble.
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A difficulty that surfaced in June with Xi’s birthday call, which reaffirmed, if only in appearance, the great cooperation between the countries. In fact, if you read between the lines, it was the second official phone call between the two “friends” in the four months since the conflict broke out. Aside from rhetorical and commercial support, there seemed to be no real understanding between the countries, especially militarily.
This is also shown by the deviating versions expressed by the parties. One relayed Chinese support to Russia, the other focused on China as a peace broker.
Few feet for too many shoes
There are many analysts today who believe that the cost of Putin’s war become untenable for Xi, especially from an economic and global reputation perspective, and especially after the Chinese president’s third re-election. Others believe that the balancing act Beijing has undertaken cannot last for long without Xi’s political will and “new mandate.”
Indeed, at the moment, the Chinese approach seems more rational and pragmatic than ideological. If on the one hand he says he supports Russian interests and will, on the other hand he refuses to supply military equipment and tries to maintain stable relations with the US and the EU.
The other side of Sino-Russian economic success
The economic situation is perhaps the best mirror to describe the political difficulties and the way to describe them. Trade between Moscow and Beijing hit a record $192 billion in 2022, up from $147 billion in 2021.
Exports of Chinese goods to Russia grew for the sixth straight month. Beijing’s natural gas imports from the Power of Siberia are up 50%. Both countries easily portray this as a success in the relationship.
What is not immediately apparent from these figures is that at the February 2022 Olympics, as explained here, the two leaders agreed to reach 250 billion, a goal that is still a long way off. Notably, according to Lyu Daliang, spokesman for the General Administration of Customs, trade with Russia accounted for just 3% of China’s total trade in 2022.
In fact, trade relations with the US and the EU (China’s main trading partners) have suffered severe setbacks. Also thanks to the zero-Covid policy, China’s global exports fell 8.7% and 9.9% in November and December, respectively, according to Portal, posting their worst reading since 2020.
According to the Associated Press, Beijing’s exports to the US fell 19.5% in December 2022, while those to the EU slumped 39.5%, losing half the surplus with Brussels.
The danger of political irrationality
No small factor when we consider that the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) legitimacy rests largely on its ability to ensure continued growth in economic prosperity and lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty.
However, the country’s growth is below forecasts, as is the expansion of the middle class slowing in the context of a housing crisis in deep crisis, within a bubble that seems destined to burst and in the context of an extended lockdown that has emerged strong protests .
In terms of innovation, tech companies are increasingly under the Party’s scrutiny and direct control, as is generally the case for the private sector and foreign investment, which is now being encouraged in the face of the impact of the pandemic and war.
What worries some observers is that in the absence of a valid alternative to popular legitimacy, Xi is ceasing to be a pragmatic tightrope walker to pursue more irrational avenues, such as pursuing historical goals (see Taiwan), including through military means, much like the Russian counterpart and despite the incomparability of the two contexts.
With due differences between Kyiv and Taipei, numerous aspects that prompted Putin to invade are also reflected in Xi’s condition. Both propaganda is highly ideological, leading two great powers to their “rightful place in history” in contrast to centuries of Western dominance or “humiliation.”
From “Shoot Pelosi” to “Putin Is Crazy”
A narrative fueled over time very aggressive approaches to matters of national interest. The more radical are constantly calling for an invasion of Taiwan, and there are even those who have publicly criticized Xi for not shooting down the plane of US House Representative Nancy Pelosi on a visit to Taipei.
However, there is not just one trend. There are also those around Xi who claim “Putin is crazy”. The Financial Times reported this in the voice of a Chinese official, adding: “The invasion was decided by a small group of people. China shouldn’t just follow Russia.”
In this regard, there are signs of an opening on the part of China, which Politico says is ready to send Foreign Minister Wang Yi to Belgium and Germany along with a number of senior officials. Meanwhile, President Zelensky of Ukraine officially invites Xi to meet by delivering a letter to his delegation during the World Economic Forum currently taking place in Davos, Switzerland.
Chinese strategic ambiguity
Despite similar news, the latest has not yet been said. The fact that this crisis in relations was foreseen and is now more apparent may be part of the same strategic ambiguity by China that has been perpetuated to date.
In dealing with the conflict in Europe, China has always been careful to act as a potential mediator, provided that the Brussels position is not too subject to Washington’s will.
“China could try to get both,” says Robert English, a professor at the University of Southern California. “The war benefits Beijing because it distracts the West from confrontation with China while it enjoys cheaper energy imports from Russia.” . it wants trade relations with Europe to suffer, so Moscow has to be criticized. Economic support for Russia has not declined, nor has the official Chinese position that continues to blame NATO for the conflict changed.
So let’s take Chinese “twisting” for granted not only literally, but figuratively as well, for like circus tradition, Mandarin politics is known for debunking contradictions and paradoxes that we Europeans hypothetically do not hold.
The reconciliation of communism and capitalism is the best example of this, a system that has been described in the media and universities since the Tiananmen Square events as imploding at any moment, but is now at the peak of its power.
Born in 1989, sinologist and freelance journalist, he is technical and administrative director of China Files, an information channel on Asia covering around 30 areas and countries. He collaborates with various national newspapers and has worked for the digital and international development of various companies between Italy and China. After graduating in Oriental Languages and Cultures from La Sapienza, he continued his studies in Beijing between BFSU, UIBE and Tsinghua University (Master of Law – LLM). Atzori is also President and co-founder of APS ProPositivo, an organization dedicated to local development in Sardinia, and promoter of the Festival della Resilienza.