Putin-Xi Jinping meeting, an alliance unbalanced in Beijing's favor

An ever closer alliance, an ever more real interdependence. This is the background of the meeting in Beijing between the leaders of the two great illiberal powers of the East, Xi Jinping and Valdimir Putin. With one clarification: there is a king and there is a vassal. While the Chinese Xi has no particular requests to make to his Russian counterpart – except as regards the car market -, this meeting (the fourth since the war in Ukraine began) is instead crucial for the Russian Putin, since the start of his new presidential mandate coincides with a new and very delicate Russian military offensive in the Kharkiv region (the capital is the second largest city in the country), with the reshuffle of the military command line (General Shoigu is no longer the Minister of Defense, replaced by the economist Andrey Belousov), with growing political instability in Eastern Europe also due to the upcoming general elections of the Union; finally, with probable further economic sanctions from the West and the destination towards the reconstruction of Ukraine of Russian assets and capital blocked so far by member states for a value of 330 billion dollars.

All this offers a demonstration of how much support the Russian Federation needs from its most powerful political partner. It is no coincidence that it was Putin himself who underlined how “it is logical that my first trip abroad is to China”. His two-day mission would like to highlight the vaunted “limitless” partnership between the two, in defiance of US pressure on Russia's invasion of Ukraine in 2022. And Xi Jinping has granted him all the honors necessary , concluding his opening speech with praise for the “seventy-five years of persistent friendship and all-round cooperation” between the two countries, and for the driving force that pushes this relationship forward “despite the wind and rain.”

Yes, because there are many clouds on the horizon. First of all, although Xi spoke at the press conference about the fact that China and Russia will make “the due contribution” to the stability of the world, the Chinese president knows well that Putin has already lied to him on this point for the first time: it was when, during the opening of the Beijing Winter Olympics in February 2022 – less than a week into the war – she reassured him that the invasion of Ukraine was a calculated military operation, which would be resolved quickly and painlessly , with the result of seeing a pro-Russian (and therefore pro-Chinese) government installed in Kiev. This tease whispered in the Chinese leader's ear was at best a personal hope on Putin's part and at worst a blatant lie on the part of the Russian leader. In both cases, Xi Jinping suffered this decision and, faced with the fait accompli, had to make the best of it. Which he must not have liked very much.

Not only. Xi Jinping currently finds himself having to manage an increasingly difficult relationship with America also due to the reckless war unleashed by his neighbor, which has created a tense climate between the two shores of the Pacific Ocean, where in the meantime it has reopened a trade war that led the United States to announce it would quadruple tariffs on Chinese electric vehicles to 100%. Serious damage to the Chinese economy, which aimed to invade the appetizing American market with exports of low energy cost cars which America does not have at its disposal, no less than the European market. Instead, having canceled the plans to “conquer” Europe after the interruption of the Belt and Road Initiative and the dream of breaking into the US automotive market, Beijing must now settle for the Russian market, which is much smaller and much poorer than the Western one. .

Even though trade between China and Russia has quadrupled, and even though Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has declared that «Russian natural gas fuels many Chinese homes and Chinese-made cars circulate on Russian roads», the grandiose new gas pipeline between Siberia and China – which should make Beijing and Moscow even more linked and interdependent – exists only on paper at a planning level. As if China didn't really intend to tie itself hand and foot to Russia with an excessive energy dependence, probably so as not to end up like Germany and the other European countries that found themselves short of hydrocarbons due to the “emperor's follies” such as Putin has always believed himself to be.

In short, Xi Jinping has too many examples of how not to behave in relation to Russia and Chinese caution in international relations is maximum, especially since India threatens the well-being of the Asian superpower. This is why the philosophy of the leader of the Chinese Communist Party today is that of “horse diplomacy”, compared to the traditional “panda diplomacy” through which Beijing in recent decades has distributed black and white bears in zoos around the world with the aim of please the receiving countries as a gesture of détente. “Horse diplomacy”, however, is typical of Mongolia, a landlocked country and the only democracy in the Asian highlands, which for this very reason must juggle relations with its important allies: the United States, China and Russia. For this reason, Ulaanbaatar distributes steeds according to the political winds and for this reason also kindly calls America “third neighbor”, the same name that he also reserves for Japan and Europe.

Here you are. Xi Jinping also loves horses and on the one hand declares: «China is ready to work with Russia to remain good neighbors, good friends and good partners who trust each other, to continue to consolidate friendship between the two peoples and to jointly pursue national development and revitalization and uphold equity and justice in the world.” On the other hand, however, he takes care not to deteriorate relations with the “third neighbor” or the West, aware that uncritically siding with Moscow's positions will only isolate Beijing from the rest of the world and slow down its development. economic.

For these reasons, while Vladimir Putin arrives at the appointment with Xi with the proverbial hat in hand, the astute Chinese leader limits himself to receiving him with all the honors necessary, without loading the state visit with too many meanings. This is because even Xi Jinping, whose wife is a folk singer, well understands the words of the song by Canadian-American singer-songwriter Neil Young that Secretary of State Anthony Blinken improvised on guitar in a Kiev pub during his surprise visit to which he guaranteed billions of dollars to support Ukraine: «We have fuel to burn, roads to travel, let's continue to rock in a free world».