It is obvious that the recent setback faced by Russian military losing captured territories to Ukrainian military in Moscow’s “military operation” in Ukraine would spoil Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s interests to create a new world order against the west.
The last time Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin sat down face to face, they declared triumphantly the arrival of a “new era” in international relations.
Amid a Western diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics and a looming crisis in Ukraine, the world’s two most powerful autocrats shared their vision for a new world order: it would better accommodate their nations’ interests, and no longer be dominated by the West.
In a 5,000-word joint statement, the two leaders declared a friendship with “no limits” and spelled out their shared grievances toward the United States and its allies.
“The world is going through momentous changes,” their joint statement said, noting the “transformation of the global governance architecture and world order.”
More than 200 days later, Xi and Putin are to meet again at a regional summit in the city of Samarkand in southeastern Uzbekistan. Much has changed, but not necessarily in ways China or Russia could have predicted.
Three weeks after meeting Xi in Beijing and just days after the Winter Olympics ended, Putin launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. He had expected a quick victory, but seven months in, Russia is far from winning. Its forces are exhausted, demoralized, and fleeing territories they have occupied for months.
And that is making China nervous. Having grown ever closer to Moscow under Xi, Beijing has a direct stake in the war’s outcome. A defeated Russia will strengthen the West and become a less useful and reliable asset in China’s great power rivalry with the US. A weakened Moscow might also be less of a distraction for the US, thereby enabling Washington to focus more squarely on Beijing.
Xi has a fine line to tread. If he leans too much into helping Russia, he risks exposing China to Western sanctions and diplomatic blowback that would harm its own interests. The backlash would also come at a sensitive time for Xi, who is only weeks away from seeking a norm-breaking third term at the 20th Party Congress.
So far, the two authoritarian powers have not come any closer to shaping the world order in their favor – if anything, experts say Russia’s war on Ukraine has served to strengthen Western resolve.
For Putin, invading Ukraine was likely a first step in removing Russia from the post-World War II and post-Cold War international order.
A swift seizure of Ukraine would have dealt a painful blow to NATO, expanded Moscow’s sphere of influence and significantly shifted the balance of power in Europe, in Russia’s favor.
A Russian victory might also have set a dangerous precedent in regards to China, which has vowed to “unify” with the self-governing democracy of Taiwan — by force if necessary.
Under Xi, Beijing is already stepping up military activity around the island. An easy win for Putin would have further deepened Xi’s belief the West is in decline, and provided a template for an attack on Taiwan — a hugely consequential event that could reset the global balance of power.
But Ukraine fought back and instead of sabotaging the US-led order, the invasion has reinvigorated NATO, strengthened transatlantic ties and united the West.
Putin’s meeting with Xi, meanwhile, could not have come at a worse time. Russian forces are retreating en mass in the northeast of Ukraine, losing more territory in a week than they captured in five months.
While it is still too early to predict the outcome, even the prospect of Russia losing the war is enough to make Beijing anxious.
Russia’s setback in Ukraine is already starting to draw considerable political backlash within Moscow, and a complete defeat could potentially create political instability in the Kremlin — and serious headaches for China.
While the growing ties between China and Russia are primarily driven by their tensions with the West, they are also partly propelled by the close personal relationship between Xi and Putin. During his decade in power, Xi has met Putin 38 times — more than twice as many times as he has met any other world leader.
There is no guarantee a Russia without a strong Putin would be as keen to pursue a “no-limits” friendship with Beijing; in a worst-case scenario, it might even grow more friendly to the West, adding to long-running Chinese fears about geopolitical encirclement by the US.