The Chinese government’s stand on Russia’s horrific invasion of Ukraine is a litmus test of Xi Jinping’s literacy in international affairs. How he goes forward in managing China’s response to the ongoing war – which may become a wider one – has profound implications not only for Xi’s personal standing but also for China’s overall reputation throughout a world in which it is attempting to gain wider influence and control.
In fact, as the war worsens and Vladimir Putin and his commanders now face the specter of being tried for war crimes, Xi might well be seething. There may have been no other time in his life that he has been as well out-maneuvered as the bait-and-switch partnership with which Putin has now compromised him. Putin has been courting Xi over the course of several years, grooming him for the “no limits” relationship to which they both attested earlier this year. Xi allowed Putin to put him in a position in which he very publicly pledged not only his own but also the Chinese people’s support of Putin and Russia going forward.
Putin perpetrated a plan to directly appeal to Xi’s vanity and sense of self-importance as leader of not only the world’s largest nation but also the world’s largest autocracy. Putin understood that China would instinctively understand his bitterness over the fall of communism, the breakup of the Soviet Union, and the ensuing encroachment on his weakened borders that NATO has been making ever since. Protection of territorial integrity is a mantra that he could expect any Chinese leader to worship.
The burgeoning relationship between Putin and Xi did not happen just recently. In 2019, Xi said, “In the past six years, we have met nearly 30 times. Russia is the country that I have visited the most times, and President Putin is my best friend and colleague.”
What must be even worse from Xi’s perspective is that he has been drawn in by a country much weaker in economic terms. Russia has an economy smaller than Italy’s. Xi and his cohorts undoubtedly saw the opportunity to take advantage of that relative weakness as the relationship that they think they have with Russia matures. But a case can certainly be made that Putin has had Ukraine on his mind for a long time (as can be seen by his occupation of Crimea in 2014) and planned on exploiting China as a backstop for his next Ukrainian adventure, which he is prosecuting now.
Once Xi made his most recent commitments, Putin pulled the trigger. Xi’s pledges, made in a statement during a summit between the two leaders in early February, showed China adopting a new security stance in favor of Russia. “What was really new was China’s support for Russia’s stance against NATO enlargement. The statement says that China respects and supports Russia’s proposals for long-term legally binding security guarantees in Europe,” wrote Anna Kireeva of Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO University).
Not three weeks later, Xi witnessed, along with the rest of the world, exactly what he had signed up to – not just the carnage and destruction that his “best friend” is visiting upon Ukraine, but also the spontaneous, intense, and ongoing outrage being exhibited throughout the world in support of Ukraine, which has been valiant in its resolve and inspirational in its defense of its homeland.
That worldwide public demonstration of support for Ukraine and revulsion at Putin’s indiscriminate attacks are what led to the second important action that Xi took. At the beginning of March, China abstained from the U.N. vote to condemn Russia for its violent actions against Ukraine. That was an inconsistent choice for Xi to take, coming so closely on the heels of his public statements that the man fully responsible for devastation and death in Ukraine is his closest friend. Obviously, Xi had already seen the writing on the wall.
As the Economist’s China column Chaguan mused earlier this month, “Each new Russian atrocity in Ukraine prompts a question about China. Surely, foreign governments wonder, China’s leader, Xi Jinping, must distance himself from Vladimir Putin soon – if only to avoid harming his own national interests?”
Chaguan went on to suggest that, on the contrary, this would not be the first time that Chinese leaders paid little to no attention to foreigners giving China advice on how to manage its own interests.
Xi also has a damaging, even damning, lockdown legacy to live down. Videos out of major cities throughout China have shown the world that ordinary Chinese citizens have been driven to extreme measures of publicly expressed anger and desperation over shortages of food and medicine while being forcibly and literally locked into their homes.
Added to Xi’s calculations is the importance of 2022 to his own political future. This year Xi wants – and for his place in Chinese history needs – to get everything right.
Later this year, Xi will be up for a third term as head of the Chinese Communist Party, having already laid the foundation by pushing through a constitutional change that now allows a person to hold the Chinese presidency for life. It is widely assumed that Xi will be “re-elected” as general secretary of the CCP this fall, clearing the way for him to keep the post of president next spring. Despite some procedural hurdles that need to be cleared, Xi should be able to exercise enough leverage to stay at the top for at least another five years.
However, could the combined crises of the war on Ukraine abroad and his failing and highly unpopular war against COVID-19 at home threaten Xi’s chances of extending his reign?
They could, but likely without fireworks. If other powerful CCP Central Committee, Standing Committee, and Politburo members feel that Xi Jinping has overstretched himself and mortally compromised China’s international reputation, while at the same time creating social dissent through an impossible zero-COVID goal, his ouster would be carefully managed. The world would likely hear of a health issue.
It has to remembered that saying Putin has made Xi lose face on the world stage is an understatement. Having face, that combination of false pride and vanity that is so much a function of Chinese culture, is more prized than even the trappings of money and power themselves. Being seen as having dignity, stature, standing, impeccable character, and wisdom is a paramount and powerful element of the Chinese social construct.
Putin has now shown himself to be a savage purveyor of murder and destruction. He is now arguably the most hated human being in the world, including among a growing number of his own people. Xi now has to face not only his political supporters, but also his political rivals, his people, and himself with words which may now haunt him: “President Putin is my best friend.”
Time will tell whether or not Vladimir Putin is not only Xi Jinping’s best friend, but also his only one.