Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin ended their Moscow summit this week by showcasing economic help and diplomatic support China will provide the now supplicant banana-less republic that is Putin’s Russia today.
But even more importantly, the two autocratic presidents were careful not to spotlight this year’s most important reality: Apparently, their famous “no limits” partnership they boldly declared in 2022, just three weeks before Putin invaded Ukraine, has limits, after all. And this week, we discovered those limits — in what was left out of this year’s summit declaration.
So it was that the sweeping nine-point joint statement Xi and Putin issued contained extensive pronouncements on all manner of issues. The greatest economic assistance agreement helps both countries. China will buy significant quantities of Russia’s oil and natural gas, making up for the European energy market Russia lost after it invaded Ukraine. The joint statement also dealt with grand global issues such as the climate change crisis, and even narrower regional specifics including Taiwan and Mongolia.
But there was no mention about China providing Putin with specific military aid to replenish Russia’s arsenals he desperately seeks. (How desperate? Putin’s superpower was grateful to get — and quickly deploy — drones from Iran.)
The only mentions of Ukraine in that lengthy joint statement focused on Xi’s and Putin’s mutual endorsements of what they characterized as their quest for peace. “Russia confirmed that it was committed to restarting peace talks as soon as possible, and China expressed its approval,” said the joint statement, as issued by China.
But while the two rulers were spotlighting their quest for peace Wednesday, Putin’s forces in Ukraine were bombarding civilians in an apartment building and students in a university dormitory.
What we don’t know, of course, is what, if anything, Xi really told Putin about his war-making in Ukraine. Did Xi privately push his “no limits” partner, Putin, to get his troops out of Ukraine? Indeed, Xi may well have concluded that he won’t provide Putin with war-making aid — because he cannot risk having China hit by sanctions that the United States, European Union and other nations might vigorously enforce.
We also don’t know whether Xi told Putin he needs to end the Ukraine war so he can work on rebuilding his shrinking economy — before it is too late. But if Xi truly cared about helping Putin, that’s precisely what he would have advised, most emphatically.
While most nations’ economies were growing in the past decade (until the shutdowns caused by COVID-19), Russia’s wasn’t — it shrunk. Today Russia is a massive nuclear superpower but has a mini-Gross Domestic Product that is smaller than the GDPs of three of America’s states: California, Texas and New York. Indeed, California’s $3.1 trillion GDP is more than twice Russia’s ($1.48 trillion).
Western leaders have been surprised – caught off guard, really – by Xi’s determination to enhance his stature as a global leader. And they have been frankly stunned at the success Xi has achieved in areas they really hadn’t expected Xi to assert himself.
Most notably, Western elites were caught off guard to discover Xi had inserted himself into a conflict in the Middle East, where the United States has long been a significant leader from afar. Xi brokered a peace and forged what could prove to be a significant alliance between two longtime adversaries: Iran and Saudi Arabia. When U.S. relations with the Saudis became tense, and Putin was otherwise occupied, Xi sensed a gap and filled it.
If Xi is looking for new ways to try to reinvigorate his own economy — and to assert his influence as a leader of the global economy — he may well continue his efforts at global outreach. Someday, maybe soon, we may even discover that Xi has been more forceful and persuasive with Putin than we now realize.
This week, Xi may have joined the list of global leaders who were surprised by another Asian leader’s recent outreach into areas not known to be Asia-centric.
While Putin was entertaining Xi in Moscow, Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy also had an Asian visitor. Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida made a surprise visit to Kyiv and announced financial aid programs for Ukraine. In a press conference, Kishida called Russia’s war on Ukraine “an aggression that shakes the foundation of international order.”
Perhaps a new world order can restore order to our troubled world.