Cracks appear in efforts to present ‘united front’ between China, Russia

Even though Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping confirmed their countries’ “united front” to keep the United States in check, their summit also revealed subtle differences in the leaders’ stances. The concrete actions that Moscow and Beijing take from now on should be closely watched.

Xi and Putin held their first face-to-face summit since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

It is notable that Putin acknowledged China’s “concern” about the Ukraine situation, adding that he would “explain our position” on the issue. It can be surmised that Putin might have been asked by Beijing to explain if any breakthrough could be made, as Russia has been forced to wage an uphill battle amid its prolonged invasion of its neighbor.

During the meeting, Xi seems to have merely emphasized that China will work with Russia to ensure strong mutual support on “issues concerning each other’s core interests” but he avoided making any concrete comments on Ukraine. The text of an agreement released by the Chinese government also made no mention of the country.

The document signified an apparent difference in tone from the previous meeting that Xi and Putin had in February, before Moscow’s invasion, in which they declared there was no limit to the cooperation between their countries. It seems that China now finds it difficult to blatantly express its support for the invasion when taking international sentiment into account.

China has emphasized its respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity in accordance with the U.N. Charter. Beijing may believe that blatant complicity in Moscow’s invasion would put it at a disadvantage in winning support from emerging and developing countries. Also, at the latest summit, Xi did not mention Russia’s request for weapons and support in high-tech fields.

Even so, it is true that China has become a relief valve for Russia amid sanctions imposed on Moscow by the West, partly because Beijing has increased its imports of Russian crude oil. The value of bilateral trade is expected to hit a record high this year. China should scale back its support to Russia if it truly hopes to settle the situation as soon as possible.

The latest meeting between Xi and Putin was held on the sidelines of a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in the Central Asian country of Uzbekistan.

The SCO is a framework for regional cooperation led by China and Russia. Other Central Asian countries and India are among the group’s current members, and Iran is also set to join the bloc.

China and Russia aim to bring together countries that keep a distance from the United States and Europe to expand their influence and challenge the existing international order supported by the United States, Europe and Japan. The two countries insist on breaking the “unipolar dominance” of the United States and establishing “multipolarity,” but these banners could ultimately lead to a dog-eat-dog world in which military might prevails.

The SCO has a weak foundation to unite its members, unlike the European Union, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the U.S.-Japan alliance, among other coalitions, in which countries concerned share universal values such as freedom and democracy.

If Russia’s power declines and China’s economic growth hits a ceiling in the wake of the Ukraine crisis, the two countries will inevitably see their influence diminish. It is hard to foresee the SCO becoming a counterbalance to the United States and Europe.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Sept. 17, 2022)