Xi flew to Russia after China scored a surprise diplomatic success in the Middle East, a region once dominated by the U.S., by brokering an agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran to restore diplomatic ties for the first time in seven years.
China’s economy faces a serious slowdown after the end of the government’s strict “zero-Covid” policies, and Xi — who has just secured an unprecedented third term as president — is keen to demonstrate his status as a global leader, according to Victor Cha, who oversaw Asia policy on the White House National Security Council from 2004 to 2007 and now serves on the Defense Policy Board, which advises the defense secretary.
“He’s got a lot of problems at home and he’s looking for ways to justify his third term by saying China is playing this big global role now, and provide a counternarrative to what he sees as the West’s narrative about the liberal democratic order,” said Cha, now a professor at Georgetown University.
With U.S. and European Union sanctions cutting Russia off from Western energy markets and access to advanced U.S. and European technology, Beijing has offered Moscow an economic lifeline by buying its oil and gas, and selling semiconductors and other “dual use” items needed to keep the Kremlin’s war machine operating.
China spent $81.3 billion on imports of Russian oil, coal and natural gas last year, up from $52.1 billion in 2021, according to customs data analyzed by the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University. No longer able to sell its oil and gas to Europe, Russia has exported its surplus energy at a steep discount to China, as well as other countries, saving them billions of dollars.
In a commentary published in the Russian newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta on the eve of his trip, Xi touted an increase in trade between China and Russia and said his trip to Moscow would be “a journey of friendship, cooperation and peace.”
In a veiled jab at the U.S., Xi added: “No model of governance is universal, and no single country should dictate the international order.”
Although China and Russia have held joint military exercises and recently staged naval drills with Iran in the Gulf of Oman, Beijing so far has stopped short of directly arming Russian forces waging war in Ukraine, according to U.S. intelligence officials.
The U.S. and European governments have warned China that it will face severe consequences if it chooses to start providing weapons and ammunition to Russian forces.
Arming Russia would risk a wave of sanctions from the U.S. and Europe and derail Xi’s economic goals, experts said.
“He’s not going to let Putin fail, but there’s a limit to how much he’s going to stick his neck out for Putin to succeed,” Cha said.
Although China may not be ready to wade into the conflict and provide direct military support to Russia, the current state of affairs offers some benefits to Beijing, some experts said.
As long as Russia avoids defeat, China can rely on the flow of inexpensive oil and gas from Russia while the U.S. and its allies are forced to devote attention and spend billions of dollars keeping Ukraine’s military equipped. At some point, transatlantic unity may begin to fracture as the war drags on, and China could try to play a role in diplomatic talks by exploiting divisions within NATO, experts said.
The danger is that China, by siding with Russia and helping keep its economy afloat, could help prolong the war, Cha said.
“That’s not good for the U.S. and the West because that means the war will just continue, and that’s not a positive outcome for anybody,” he said.
Owen Hayes, Abigail Williams and Eric Baculinao contributed.