When Xi Jinping ascended to the pinnacle of Chinese power a decade ago, he saw Vladimir Putin as a strong leader who shared his hostility to the Western-dominated international system. They bonded over mutual paranoia about threats to their rule and exchanged best practices for imposing control at home and making the world more accommodating of their authoritarian impulses. Mr. Xi referred to Mr. Putin as his “best, most intimate friend.”
In the wake of the Wagner affair, Mr. Xi’s big bet on the Russian leader isn’t looking so safe.
The disastrous Russian war effort, culminating in last month’s aborted insurrection by the Wagner group’s paramilitary chief, Yevgeny Prigozhin, has exposed Mr. Putin’s Russia for what it is: a weakened, unpredictable nuclear state on China’s border, with a wounded leader whose long-term hold on power is not assured.
Mr. Xi cannot afford to abandon Mr. Putin altogether. He has invested too much in the relationship, and Russia remains useful to China. But the bromance that has caused so much concern in the West has probably peaked.
If Mr. Xi is to achieve his strategic goal of surpassing U.S. strength around the world, he will need to rebalance his foreign policy to account for Mr. Putin’s vulnerabilities. That may mean stronger Chinese support for ending a war that has backfired so severely on the Russian leader and a potentially less confrontational Chinese approach toward the United States and Taiwan.
There are signs the Xi-Putin bonhomie may already be cooling. Beijing offered only a muted response to the Wagner episode, calling it an “internal affair,” but hints of alarm over the failed mutiny have appeared in Chinese state-run media. Mr. Xi would not benefit by giving a blank check of support to Mr. Putin now. Doing so could invite questioning at home about Mr. Xi’s foreign policy judgment, which might only worsen if Mr. Putin were to suffer further setbacks.
China may be compelled to adjust its posture on the Ukraine war. So far, while issuing halfhearted calls for peace, Beijing has lent Moscow crucial diplomatic cover by portraying the war as justified in thwarting NATO expansion or as provoked by the West. Beijing also has provided Moscow an economic lifeline, offsetting Western sanctions with a significant expansion in Sino-Russian trade.
While there have long been signs that Chinese leaders are not fully supportive of Mr. Putin’s war, the conflict initially offered China hope that it would divert America’s focus away from Asia, where Beijing has sought to expand its sway. That hasn’t happened. Instead, Washington and its Asian allies have established a stronger military presence along China’s periphery since the Ukraine war began and are more united today in limiting China’s access to critical technologies.
Mr. Putin marches to his own tune. But China is now aware that a prolonged war in Ukraine could further threaten its Russian partner and compromise its own foreign policy agenda. It has a motive to move beyond vague expressions of principle regarding the war and to exercise its unique leverage over Moscow to urge an end to the fighting.
One key reason for this is Europe, where China’s image has been battered by its support of Russia. European business sentiment toward China has soured, foreign direct investment has slowed, and trans-Atlantic coordination on China has tightened.
Mr. Xi is determined to undercut American efforts to constrain Beijing. A hostile Europe will make that difficult. Russia’s isolation puts pressure on China to seek better relations with Europe to prevent its lining up with the United States against China. One of the best ways for China to achieve that would be to more strongly reposition itself as peacemaker in a conflict on Europe’s doorstep.
The problems in Russia also complicate Mr. Xi’s calculations regarding Taiwan. The Ukraine war has made two things clear: Pure military strength does not ensure battlefield success; and anything short of victory may invite leadership challenges. In that light, triggering a war in the Taiwan Strait through increasingly bellicose actions could be disastrous for the Chinese leader.
The self-ruled island will hold a presidential election in January to choose a successor to Tsai Ing-wen, who has angered Beijing by cultivating closer relations with the United States. China has a range of tools that it is suspected of having used before against Taiwan to apply economic pressure or sow misinformation in support of candidates who prioritize improved relations with Beijing.
But aggressive Chinese rhetoric and threatening military exercises around Taiwan could undercut that goal by boosting candidates who oppose accommodation with China, not to mention provoking stronger and more visible American and international support for Taiwan. For Mr. Xi, the sweet spot will be to appear strong and determined while not triggering an escalatory spiral.
Given these changed dynamics, leaders in Beijing probably also now realize that they must lower the temperature in relations with the United States. The deep chill cast over China-U.S. relations by the spy balloon incident in February has recently shown signs of thawing, with last month’s trip to Beijing by Secretary of State Antony Blinken — which included an audience with Mr. Xi — and this week’s visit by Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen.
The Chinese president still needs his “intimate friend.” Russia remains the only other country in the world with the means and motivation to partner with China in diluting the role of human rights and democratic governance in the international system. Steady relations also ensure stability along their long land border and keep China supplied with discounted Russian energy, as well as imports of food and military equipment. Both sides can be expected to maintain the appearance of business as usual.
But Mr. Xi has little to gain from doubling down on Mr. Putin, whose troubles are not helpful for China’s grand plans.
Many unresolved questions about the impact of Mr. Putin’s weakening grip in Russia remain. How well Mr. Xi can navigate the fallout, with his partner now diminished, is one of them.
Ryan Hass (@ryanl_hass) is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and former China director at the National Security Council under President Obama. He is the author of “Stronger: Adapting America’s China Strategy in an Age of Competitive Interdependence.”
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