After his re-election for an unprecedented third term in office in March, Chinese President Xi Jinping made an official visit to his “dear friend” Russian President Vladimir Putin. The two men held two summit meetings during a visit to Moscow that took place from 20 to 22 March.
The meetings between the two men this month in the Russian capital come in addition to the previous 40 meetings between them that have taken place since 2012. This number in itself shows how close their personal relations have become as well as the convergence of their strategic and global interests and their mutual determination and political will to reshape the world order to accommodate the two great powers of China and Russia.
The driving force behind this determination is to meet, from a position of strength, the US-led West and its global strategy to dominate world politics under the banner of the “rules-based international order,” an order that quite literally means Western hegemony.
It is no wonder, then, that western reactions on the official and media level to the visit have tried to throw doubt on the solidity and strength of the Russian-Chinese strategic partnership in all its aspects, extending from the strategic and the military to the economy, energy, and technology both civilian and military.
The official visit of President Xi to Moscow comes one year after the visit of the Russian president to Beijing in February 2022 to take part in the inauguration of the Winter Olympic Games. The two leaders held a summit meeting at the same time and released a 5,000-word joint declaration on a bilateral partnership that had “no limits.” Two weeks later, Russian forces crossed the border with Ukraine in “a special military operation,” according to the Russian government, and an act of “Russian aggression,” according to the Western powers.
From February 2022 to the present, China has adopted a neutral position in the Ukrainian crisis without condemning Russia or supporting the unprecedented sanctions that the US-led West, including its Asian and Pacific allies, have imposed on Russia.
In February this year, the Chinese government released a 12-point peace plan that it said was intended to help end the military conflict in Ukraine. It came as no surprise that the US administration did not warmly receive it. On 21 March, US National Security Council Spokesman John Kirby said that China was “parroting Russian propaganda” about the causes of the conflict.
“I don’t think the meeting today [a reference to the Russian-Chinese summit in Moscow on the same day] gives us great expectations that the war is going to end soon,” he said.
The European reactions were not greatly different, though French President Emmanuel Macron has left the door open to explore peace prospects in Ukraine during his upcoming visit to Beijing next month. The president of the European Commission is scheduled to accompany him to show a unified European stand.
Kirby also told reporters on 20 March that a potential trip to China by Janet Yellen, the US secretary of the Treasury, and Gina Raimondo, the Commerce secretary, was being planned. In the meantime, and as reported by the South China Morning Post newspaper on 23 March, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for China, Taiwan, and Mongolia Rick Walters was in Shanghai on 22 March and met the former and current presidents of the Shanghai Institute for International Studies (SIIS).
As quoted in the Post, a post by the Shanghai Institute on WeChat reported that the two sides “had an in-depth exchange of views on China-US relations.” The visit to Shanghai could also lay the ground for a visit by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to China, a visit that was postponed after the Chinese balloon incident over the US last December.
Despite dismissing the importance of the Chinese plan for peace in Ukraine in public, the US administration would welcome consulting with the Chinese on the results of the Russian-Chinese summit meeting in Moscow and how to build on the plan in the foreseeable future. That would be a positive sign, to a certain extent, as notwithstanding the growing strategic partnership between Moscow and Beijing, as the visit of President Xi to Russia demonstrates, it shows that China and the US can still work together.
During his visit to Moscow, the Chinese president invited his Russian counterpart to attend a summit meeting next autumn, probably in Beijing, to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the launch of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative. On the eve of his visit to Moscow, President Xi also penned an article published in the Russian Rossiyskaya Gazeta newspaper stressing that his visit to Russia was a “journey of friendship, cooperation, and peace.”
He added that “relations between the two countries have become more mature and resilient in their development, constantly renewing a new vitality and setting a new model of great power relations.” This description could help us to understand the new multipolar world order that is taking shape at present, indicating that the competitive relations among the superpowers should not be seen as a zero-sum game.
The Russian-Chinese summit meeting in Moscow is a milestone in reshaping the international order, making it become a multipolar one where power and influence are evenly spread worldwide and not the monopoly of one great power and its alliance systems across the globe. Even so, it is interesting to note that President Putin said on 26 March that the Russian partnership with China should not be considered a “military alliance” in the strict sense of the word.
Whether this is true or not only time will tell.
The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 30 March, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly