What to Make of Xi’s Trip to Moscow

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.

The highlights this week: Chinese President Xi Jinping signals shared values with Russian President Vladimir Putin as they meet in Moscow, Beijing seeks to cover up data that could help confirm the zoonotic origins of COVID-19, and TikTok’s CEO testifies on Capitol Hill.

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Chinese President Xi Jinping received a red carpet reception this week in Moscow, where he met Russian President Vladimir Putin against the bloody background of Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine. Both leaders were full of praise for each other, building on a friendship rooted largely in anti-Western sentiment—which also underpins Beijing’s rhetorical support for Moscow’s war. But their meeting may have been more about appearance than substance.

Xi and Putin, who have met more than 40 times, seem to sympathize as fellow autocrats; they speak the mutual language of power. (The Russian translator at their meeting this week, however, embellished Xi’s language to make it sound more fulsome toward Putin.) Although Chinese state media doesn’t often offer direct backing for Russia’s territorial claims in Ukraine, it constantly mentions how the war is the fault of NATO and the United States.

To some degree, this week’s meeting pushed back on U.S. warnings to China not to back Russia in the war. But in addition to giving the United States the finger, both sides are reaping pragmatic economic benefits. An isolated Russia badly needs Chinese trade, which Beijing is more than happy to supply. Trade between the countries has grown by nearly 20 percent this year, up from an already record-setting $190 billion in 2022.

For all the pomp, the meeting was not that substantive. Tellingly, the joint statement that followed it omits the phrase “partnership without limits,” a highlight of the statement released when Xi and Putin met before the war last February. That may reflect some Chinese discomfort with Russia’s invasion: that it’s unhappy with the course of the war, its economic impact, and possibly Russia’s failure to cut its losses. (By comparison, China retreated yet claimed victory in 1979 just under four weeks after invading Vietnam, after taking tens of thousands of casualties.)

Furthermore, while China and Russia just unveiled a number of economic deals, Putin’s signature project—Power of Siberia 2, which would deliver gas to China via Mongolia—was also conspicuously missing. With Russia’s energy export prospects to the West slowly narrowing, China holds all the cards there—and it doesn’t seem to be giving Moscow any favors over energy prices.

Still, Russia is not a vassal state to China. As Philipp Ivanov writes in Foreign Policy, the power dynamics between the two countries have shifted rapidly, but Moscow is not subservient to Beijing. When he met with Xi last February, Putin had already lined up his forces along the border with Ukraine; he might have told the Chinese leader of his plans, but he wasn’t asking permission. The two powers are not cooking up any sinister plots; the Xi-Putin meeting reflects overlapping interests between two autocrats whose nationalist ambitions happen to not clash.

Beijing’s broader pitch, endorsed by Moscow, is that it can be a peacemaker between Ukraine and Russia. But it’s hard to see how Ukrainians would see China as acting in good faith given the optics of Xi’s embrace of Putin. Yet Beijing remains reluctant to cross the Rubicon of directly supplying arms to Russia. Some Chinese-made materiel is indirectly making its way to Russia; China seems uninterested in cracking down on that trade, but it’s not endorsing it.

However partial and self-serving the China-Russia friendship is, it is real and unlikely to change anytime soon. U.S. pundits keep reasserting the idea that the unofficial alliance can be broken—whether it’s the argument that Moscow can be split from Beijing and side with the West or that the West can leverage China against Russia in the aftermath of its war in Ukraine. Some Western analysts are still dreaming of a repeat of the Sino-Soviet split that divided the countries for over two decades.

One line of thinking is that China could seek to stir up old territorial grievances over Siberia. In the Maoist era, China held that Russia had plundered its territory through unfair treaties, and anti-Soviet politics were a surprisingly important part of the Cultural Revolution between 1966 and 1976. But the two governments went to considerable efforts to settle border disputes in the 1980s and 1990s, and there’s no sign that China has any interest in reviving them. Even among fervent nationalists, Siberian ambitions rank way below those in the Himalayas or the Pacific.

It’s possible that over the long term, a new generation of Russian leaders may rankle at being weaker than China. But right now, Moscow shares a powerful set of autocratic values with Beijing: anger at Washington, a desire to crush domestic opposition, and a shared resentment at being denied what it sees as its rightful place in the global order.

COVID-19 cover-ups. New data from the Huanan market in Wuhan, China, looks like an important but not decisive stepping stone toward confirming the zoonotic origins of COVID-19. But Chinese scientists promptly pulled the information from the Global Initiative on Sharing Avian Influenza Data (GISAID), a global database on flu origins. For unknown reasons, GISAID accused Western scientists of violating the terms of service and removed their access—then restored it within 24 hours.

China has consistently sought to stymie investigations into the Huanan market’s role as the epicenter of the early outbreak, instead concocting scientifically impossible theories about imported frozen food and conspiracies about American bioweapons. This isn’t surprising: China was supposed to have cleaned up its live animal trade after the first so-called SARS outbreak, but that industry was too profitable and well connected to face real regulation, especially in a country with poorly enforced food safety standards.

The Huanan market is particularly sensitive because it’s owned by the daughter of Wuhan magnate Yu Zhusheng, a high-rolling gambler with rumored connections to Xi’s cousin, a fellow casino habitue. However, a cover-up does not equal conspiracy in China. Covering things up is an ingrained habit—Chinese officials seek to avoid being scapegoated in the event of a disaster, especially one that involves an outside investigation. It’s unlikely that Beijing has a definitive answer on COVID-19’s origins, but it’s determined to make sure no one else does either.

Corruption arrests. It’s been a big week for purges and investigations in China. Cui Maohu, head of the National Religious Affairs Administration (now rolled into the United Front Work Department, which seeks to control civil society for the Chinese Communist Party’s ends) was arrested on corruption charges, as were several other provincial-level leaders and financial chiefs. Some donations to temples in China end up being sacrificed to officials, not gods. But it’s also possible that the charges stem from Cui’s time as a provincial boss in Yunnan.

Meanwhile, several Chinese Super League players were arrested on gambling charges following the arrest of the chief soccer official a month ago. Chinese soccer is notoriously corrupt, and the league is China’s biggest; this is only the latest in a series of attempted clean-ups that, as in other sectors, never seem to shake the underlying problems.

FP’s Most Read This Week

If China Arms Russia, the U.S. Should Kill China’s Aircraft Industry by Richard Aboulafia

Putin Is Trapped in the Sunk-Cost Fallacy of War by David V. Gioe

A Coup Would Put Pakistan Squarely in China’s Bloc by Azeem Ibrahim

Chinese workers killed in CAR. Nine Chinese workers were killed in an attack on a gold mine in the Central African Republic, prompting promises of punishment from Xi himself. It’s not clear exactly which of the country’s tangle of militias were involved in the attack, but China is deeply embedded in mining on the continent and understandably keen to protect its citizens and interests. (The plot of Wolf Warrior 2, the movie that became a symbol of China’s newly aggressive diplomacy, involved protecting Chinese interests in Africa.)

Chinese firms tend to prefer importing Chinese workers rather than relying on local labor, which sometimes stirs up resentment. However, mineral politics in the Central African Republic are also messy and violent. Beijing may not be able to do much in response, given the complicated negotiations among armed groups in the country. It’s possible that the attack may even be tied to Russia’s Wagner Group, which has played an increasingly powerful role in the Central African Republic.

TikTok testimony. TikTok CEO Shou Zi is testifying before a U.S. congressional committee on Thursday, as ambitions for a ban on the app grow. He’s likely to face hostile questioning; criticizing the app has become a bipartisan hobby in Washington. There are serious concerns about TikTok’s use of data, but it’s hard to argue that they are more acute than for other apps. Its Achilles’ heel remains its ownership by Chinese parent company ByteDance in an era of growing worry about Beijing’s influence.

An attempt to ban TikTok could well backfire given its popularity with young people. It’s more likely to end up strangled by lobbying and legal measures from the well-funded company.

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