Will the circle be complete in Beijing? The last time Vladimir Putin was abroad was in the Chinese capital. For the moment, the Russian president has not physically traveled to China. He participates virtually in the BRICS summit – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – which opened this Thursday in Beijing. Debates continue on Friday.
On February 4, the Russian president was received with great fanfare by Xi Jinping a few hours before the opening of the Beijing Winter Olympics, an event boycotted by the vast majority of world leaders. This meeting had consecrated the axis of the two powers in their common desire to challenge the supremacy – “hegemony”, they denounce – of the United States. The two heads of state then boasted of their “boundless friendship”.
By virtue of this special relationship, had Vladimir Putin informed his ally that he was about to invade Ukraine? Three weeks after the Beijing summit, Russian tanks were hurtling towards kyiv. At the start of the war, China had difficulty in hiding its embarrassment, which is so attached to the “sovereignty” of nations and “non-interference”.
The Chinese ambiguity now seems to have been lifted. This is what emerges from Xi Jinping’s remarks on Wednesday, on the eve of the opening of the BRICS summit. The Chinese president denounced the “broadening of military alliances”, a way of making NATO and the United States, without naming them, responsible for the war in Ukraine. Xi Jinping also attacked sanctions, a “double-edged sword” which risked turning against Westerners like a “boomerang”. As if that was the source of the problem, rather than the war waged against Ukraine.
“China has clearly chosen its camp”, observes Pierre-Antoine Donnet, former AFP correspondent in the country and author of several books on the Middle Kingdom, including the last China, the great predator (Edited by Dawn 2021). The Chinese power prefers to risk economic retaliation from the West which will penalize the economy and the Chinese people. Rallying the Western camp would be tantamount for the Communist Party to disavowing itself, which is viscerally anti-American. It is a purely ideological choice. The survival of the Communist Party takes precedence.”
This alignment with Russia would not, however, be unanimous in the circles of Chinese power. The French journalist points to the dissenting opinions published in the official press in recent months as proof of this. After the invasion of Ukraine, which seemed to take Beijing by surprise, China, for example, cautiously abstained and did not veto, leaving Russia to prevent the UN Security Council from impose a withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine. “China didn’t like it either when Vladimir Putin brandished the nuclear threat,” continues Pierre-Antoine Donnet. The Chinese Communist Party abhors unpredictability. He wants to control and plan everything.”
China’s support for Russia is not just rhetorical. Russian oil purchases continue to increase. “These deliveries have the advantage of being made at bargain prices, which is important for a country as indebted as China”, continues Pierre-Antoine Donnet. According to a report by the International Energy Agency (IEA), China now imports 2 million barrels a day, up 25% from the start of the year. India has multiplied by nine its imports of Russian crude and today buys nearly a million barrels in Moscow.
But Vladimir Putin probably expects even more from his Chinese ally, while the Russian army is engaged in a war of attrition in Ukraine and its arms industry is hit by sanctions. “China refuses to provide military aid to Russia,” said Pierre-Antoine Donnet. I don’t think she’ll cross that Rubicon.”