Putin and Xi forever? No way: Beijing is sending hidden signals that it wants to slowly but surely emancipate itself from its friendship with Russia. No wonder: the pact of the dictators is no longer as fruitful as it used to be.
The beginning of February marks the anniversary of the meeting between China’s ruler Xi Jinping and Kremlin dictator Putin in Beijing. Putin traveled there to mark the opening of the Olympic Games. After their conversation, both leaders jointly announced that their countries would be linked in a special, close friendship in the future.
It seemed that the two wanted to clear up the quarrels of the past: At the end of the 1960s and beginning of the 1970s there was a break between the two communist powers, which the United States used to get closer to the People’s Republic.
A historical mistake, as Xi is sure to think. Under him, China is to be put back on the ideological track: Young and old must therefore study “Xi’s Thoughts”, a three-volume ideological bundle. Even dictator Putin considers a world order led by the USA to be an insult. He has called the collapse of the Soviet Union the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century.
So the two leaders are united in their rejection of the current world order, which is based on human rights, freedom and the rule of law. The alternative they stand for is maximum state repression, technological surveillance and war of aggression.
However, the devil is in the detail: in his destructive madness, Putin would like to set the whole world on fire, while Xi uses tricks to subdue the world and make it his own. To do this, he uses the existing world order, undermines it and imposes Chinese supremacy on countries, sweetened by economic deals. Xi believes that people are basically just greedy and corrupt.
That’s why his regime bribes politicians and officials in countries it wants to serve. A good example of this is the Solomon Islands, which Xi wants to take control of due to their location in the Pacific Ocean. Smugly, Xi took office promising to end corruption in China. Of course, nothing can come of this if his favorite instrument of Chinese foreign policy is corruption.
However, unmistakable signals have indeed been sent out by Beijing in the past few weeks, which are intended to signal to the free world that the People’s Republic does not want to become completely tied to Russia and wants to emancipate itself from the “friendship”.
Two strong signals were sent out to the diplomatic world to underline this intention: Qin Gang, until recently China’s ambassador to the United States of America, will become the new Chinese foreign minister. He replaces Wang Yi, who had become the unappealing face of China’s aggressive expansion policy.
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Before leaving the US, Qin praised the country and its people in an interview. There hasn’t been so much official praise for America from the People’s Republic for a long time. At the same time, the Chinese government’s best-known spokesman, Zhao Lijian, was given a new job. Like Wang Yi, Zhao belongs to the camp of the “wolf warriors”, those Beijing diplomats and politicians who believe in an aggressive, over-nationalistic people’s republic and who flaunt this on the diplomatic floor, completely undiplomatically.
The fact that Beijing has thus twice renounced Xi’s policies over the past decade is astonishing, and in any case remarkable. Because in the diplomatic world, such gestures are considered real acts meant to stand for something substantial. Nowhere is it more true that the tone makes the music than on the diplomatic stage. So you can’t just dismiss these two personal details as diversionary tactics, at least not for the moment.
During a visit by Chancellor Olaf Scholz in the autumn, the Beijing leadership had already tried to unite with the free world and condemned Putin’s announcement that he might also carry out a nuclear attack on Ukrainian soil. This condemnation is no cause for celebration, as it reflects the international community’s official stance on the use of such weapons of mass destruction. However, one can now be happy if Xi’s China accommodates the free world even a few millimeters.
The reason for this conciliation may be that the economy of the People’s Republic is on the brink thanks to Xi’s failed policies and his nomenklatura. The real estate bubble, which could pull the country’s entire middle class into the abyss, is keeping Beijing alive artificially, only increasing the risk of a much more severe crash later on. China’s exports have collapsed and domestic consumption is also sluggish. Unemployment is correspondingly high, especially among young people. In addition, workers are demonstrating more and more frequently when the wages they have been promised are to be withheld.
Beijing finally realized that in such a situation it is not sustainable to threaten all of its neighbors with war. During a visit by Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. to the Chinese capital, he was offered the prospect of business deals and attempts to defuse the conflict arising from China’s claim that parts of the Spratly Islands belonged to the People’s Republic.
Because even if it is true that Beijing is now importing gas and oil from Russia (like India) at heavily discounted prices, it is also true that Russia is not replacing the adequate sales market for China, which it could lose in the free world if the partnership with Moscow remain. China has every reason to distance itself from Russia. From the outside, it is not clear to what extent the ruler Xi is being forced to make this course correction or whether he has personally come to the conclusion that his friendship with Putin does him more harm than good.
Again, it is a good moment for the US and its allies to take China’s signals first and, like half a century ago, use the riff between the two dictatorships and open the door back to the world community for China, hoping for the country to abandon the warpath that Xi led it on.
Alexander Görlach is Honorary Professor of Ethics at Leuphana University in Lüneburg and Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs in New York. After stints in Taiwan and Hong Kong, he has focused on the rise of China and what it means for East Asian democracies in particular. From 2009 to 2015, Alexander Görlach was also the publisher and editor-in-chief of the debate magazine The European, which he founded. Today he is a columnist and author for various media. He lives in New York and Berlin.