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Q&A: The Xi-Putin Summit

Updated: Sep 20, 2023

Last week, Chinese President Xi Jinping made a three-day state visit to Moscow following an invitation from Russian President Vladimir Putin. This invitation arrived only weeks after China released its 12-point position paper advocating for a ceasefire and peace talks between Kyiv and Moscow. The summit, a symbol of the closer relations between China and Russia, could have significant implications for the war in Ukraine and for Kyiv’s Western allies. To understand these implications, Wikistrat held an exclusive webinar with Dr. Richard Weitz. This included a "TED-Talk"-style lecture, followed by the Q&A session below.

Dr. Richard Weitz is senior fellow and director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at Hudson Institute. His research interests include European and Eurasian regional security developments as well as US foreign and defense policies. He has written extensively in his field, recently authoring his book, “The New China-Russia Alignment: Critical Challenges to US Security.”


Question: Would this meeting shape a multipolar world order and if so, how?

Dr. Richard Weitz:

Clearly, we are in a multipolar world order already in some areas, particularly economics, and culture. And so that's going to continue. Partly that's due to the Russia-China relationship, but it's due to long-term secular factors. The US was in an unnaturally strong position at the end of the Cold War and World War II, which over time has weakened a bit. But militarily, the US still has certain advantages over both countries. It's multipolar, but it really depends a lot on the issues. So some issues like economics, Russia didn't matter that much, whereas for others, military, and nuclear issues, Russia is really important. But the meeting itself isn't going to have much of an impact. I think these are just long-term secular trends that are leading to this development.

Question:

What about the impact on the geopolitical international balance of power? Not from the meeting itself but for the longer term developments?

Dr. Richard Weitz:

Right. And I think we've seen in evidence, the emergence of at least two... It's not as severe as the Cold War. We are seeing (inaudible) two kinds of blocks with the authoritarian powers versus the Western powers, and with Russia and China, similar views, close cooperation, in confrontation with the United States and its allies. In the US, alliances have strengthened in recent years, partly due to the Russia-China confrontation. So this looks to continue. It's not as severe a division as in the Cold War, but it's certainly looking like this two-block world with a lot of countries outside of this kind of either distancing themselves or taking advantage of this. You've seen India, Pakistan, and the Gulf States states plan to keep open and maneuver between them. And I think that's also a bit different from the Cold War because these other countries are much stronger or more influential and important than they were at times during the Cold War.

Question:

Despite the growing cooperation between the two countries, are there still areas where Russia and China compete with each other?

Dr. Richard Weitz:

Well, there are some areas where they could come into increasing competition. So for example, as China's arms industry improves, they will be in a better position to compete with Russian firms for contracts among those countries that either cannot obtain, because of sanctions, or cannot afford Western arms are looking for weapons, perhaps 80% as effective as their Western equivalents, but a lot cheaper. And in the past, they would turn to Russia, but China might offer an opportunity. We've seen Russia and China come into competition for tanks in Thailand. Russians look like they won the contract, but it went to a Chinese firm instead. So you may see more of that. You may see tensions over Central Asia. But these are really not enough to disrupt the long-term relationship as long as Xi and Putin are in power and they don't have good ties to anybody else and they're so invested in the relationship. I can't see anything near-term that's going to come along to break up this partnership. It's got to be a longer-term strategy.

Question:

The EU French president and Spanish prime minister are all going to Beijing to meet President Xi over Ukraine after this Xi-Putin meeting. Most nations around the world don't want the war to continue indefinitely. The Middle East piece has recently been brokered by Xi according to the IMF. China will account for a third of global growth. Aren't all these indicators of a changing global order where China, with Russia and the developing world, are gaining more influence?

Dr. Richard Weitz:

Yeah, all those statements are true to an extent. China's economy is growing in importance. Most countries want the war to end even, with a cease-fire peace agreement. I think the Chinese are exploiting that by talking about the need for peace without really making an effort to promote it. The difference though, between what happened with the Saudis and the Iranians is that both of those countries wanted to reconcile for various reasons; their governments did. The US couldn't serve that function because of our poor relationship with Iran. So China was as good as any country to play that role. But with Russia and Ukraine, the differences are so great. Both sides still think they can do better at another round of fighting. And certainly, the Ukrainians wouldn't want to accept the current situation with a ceasefire because that would just allow Russia to resume the confrontation. So I think that that option is available to China or other countries, certainly mediators, but just conditions aren't right.

Question:

Does Russia's development of tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus have something to do with Xi's visit?


Dr. Richard Weitz:

Not clear. I mean, they made a statement during the visit denouncing the deployment of nuclear weapons in other countries, and that was criticism of the US policy within NATO. But then four days later, Putin announced he was going to do this. So either it was poorly coordinated or it's... And I don't quite know why that... But I don't think that the Chinese objected or maybe not even aware of this, but it doesn't appear to be related anything to the visit. It's something that President Putin has been wanting to do, I think, for a while. It is part of the strategy of raising the spectre of nuclear war in order to intimidate the West and put pressure on Western governments to end the fighting because their people are concerned about the possibility of nuclear escalation. And what provided an excuse was the British decision to provide depleted uranium ammunition, which is not a nuclear weapon, but it sounded like one, but enough for, at least, Putin's propaganda team to cite that as the excuse.


So I don't think the Chinese have anything to do with it. But one thing that has perhaps been interesting is the Chinese statements, even in their peace plans, calling on countries to refrain from using nuclear weapons and for showing strong concern, and respect for civilian nuclear power plants, not to disrupt them through conflict. Both of those could be read as implicit criticisms that the Russian policy, but they're clearly in Chinese national interests. China wants to be a leading nuclear power provider and certainly doesn't want to cause countries to rethink their nuclear power because of the possibility of bringing in a war zone. So it's an interesting issue, the whole nuclear dimension. China doesn't seem to be fully on the side of Russia but hasn't apparently done enough to stop Russia from making these threats and decisions.


Question:

Does the agreement (Xi-Putin increasing/developing relations) have any impact on the security of South Asia?


Dr. Richard Weitz:

On South Asia? So far, it's had an interesting impact. So India is, of course, Indians have been concerned about the growing China-Russian ties. This is unwelcome from India's point of view. But the strategy they've pursued so far has been to strengthen their ties with Russia, or at least do anything to avoid hurting their ties with Russia for fear of driving Russia even more towards China. And I think this partly explains India's stance in Ukraine. Pakistan has been doing the same, and so have all other (?) states. So at some point, China may be in a position or feel comfortable trying to force Russia to abandon India or at least cut-off arms supplies and so on. They haven't done that yet. But for now, the Russia-China strengthening has had the effect of helping strengthen Russia's leverage with India and Pakistan rather than hurt it.


Question:

Do you think that China can play the role of negotiator to end the Ukraine war?

Dr Richard Weitz:

They could if both sides wanted to end it. So could the head of the UN. So could the government of Turkey or India or Pakistan. I mean, a lot of potential mediators. But for now, if both sides don't want to end the fighting, there's not a lot they can do. It's basically, I think both sides still anticipate doing better. And certainly, NATO's strategy is to help Ukraine strengthen its position, seize back some more territory and then consider negotiations. And I'm just not aware of anyone who has sufficient leverage on the party. Well, NATO could force Ukraine to make peace, but won't, and there's not anyone that can force Putin to back down in Ukraine, an external actor, anyway.


Question:

What are the chances that the United States can ever stabilize relations with Russia enough that Russia could become more of a pivot player between America and China rather than a functional Chinese ally?


Dr. Richard Weitz:

Certainly possible. I think as long as President Putin is in power, it's not. I mean, he's just so vilified in the West and his views of the West or so negative and distorted that it's sort of hopeless. But when he leaves, maybe there'll be a period when they're quasi Putin's in charge. But at some point, you could see a new Russian leader who would be willing to make the kind of concessions we see in at least European history, and decide to give back occupied Ukrainian territory the way Yeltsin freed the Baltic States. And that would remove major source of attention and allow for flourishing ties and strengthen Russia's position to avoid falling into a dependency on China, giving Russia a little more leverage. It makes logical sense. It's just not possible when Putin's in charge. I mean, President Trump tried that, and he faced strong resistance from US Congress, and among US allies. And then the Russians weren't very accommodating in making any concessions that would've made this reconciliation effort sustainable. So it just failed. And I don't see anything new that would make it successful as long as Putin's there.


Question:

What will Russia-China relations look like if either leader was changed, or either country had changed in leadership? So to what extent are Russia-China relations really about Putin and Xi relations?


Dr. Richard Weitz:

Yeah, I still think that's central, that their relationship is central. I mean, they don't decide everything in their country, but they can decide anything. And certainly, the Russia-China relationship is so important that any policies towards the other country at a high level are made by the leaders. And as long as they are so invested in each other, I don't know if the personal chemistry is real or just for show. I mean, certainly, Putin's very skilled at (inaudible) But in terms of their commitments, they don't really have any other good partners or at least allies. And they certainly don't want to get a (inaudible) on the relationship with the rest of the world so bad. So I think as long as they're in charge, this relationship will remain strong. When one or more of them leaves, it does offer an opportunity. These are both autocracies, so if the new leader comes in and has sufficient power to reverse the policies, then I think that kind of more fluid triangle among the three great powers is possible.


Question:

It looks like Xi and Putin want to de-dollarize/remove the dollar in the oil trade. Did this meeting do anything to make that more unlikely or more likely?


Dr. Richard Weitz:

Yeah, I mean, in the meeting, there was that Putin announcement saying that Russia would not only use the yuan in its trade with China but would also now try and use it in trade with other countries. And that probably will spur that kind of a trend. But I think that's likely to become stronger. I mean, since China's a major oil purchaser and Russia is a major seller and other countries in the Gulf are interested in this idea of moving away the dollar as well, I think this looks to be something we'll see more of.


Question:

What is the likelihood of China supplying arms to Russia?


Dr. Richard Weitz:

I break that into two time periods. So as long as the war with Ukraine continues, I think that the Chinese are going to be cautious about overtly providing Russia with the weapons, missiles and so on, just because of the negative response that would produce in the West. And it would undercut the Russia-Chinese propaganda about trying to promote peace. But when this barrier goes, I think that's a logical evolution besides their two countries working to jointly develop and produce and sell weapons that I think China's defense industries have improved to the point where Russia would be interested in, for example, buying warships from China, more component parts and so on. So I think that we will definitely see Russia buying weapons from China, but I think the war has delayed that possibility.


Question:

Do you think that there are many different views on China-Russia relations within China's bureaucracy?


Dr. Richard Weitz:

Possibly. I mean, I was looking at the coverage of the summit. And of course, because of the censorship, it's hard to know. So all the comments were very favourable. Russia's a great friend, it's a true win-win partnership, bravo Xi. And what they think, really, Xi's foreign policy, about this confrontation with the West working with China and North Korea now and others, probably some concerns. I mean, of course, a lot of them were purged, in particular the last party contest (inaudible). So there may be people who harbour doubts, but they're probably hiding their views for now in order to not be threatened with purge or whatever. But you would think there'd be some people who have been rethinking this.


Question:

And would the West attempting to improve the relations with one, but not overtly both, China or Russia, ever jeopardize the relation with the other?


Dr. Richard Weitz:

It could, but so far it's not worked. So when Trump tried to be nice to Russia for example, with Putin, it wasn't like Putin tried to meet him halfway, make concessions on Crimea or something. It was more like Russia was trying to pocket what it saw as opportunities to weaken NATO, trying to leverage its position. I was actually in Russia at that time when Trump came to power, and there was a general feeling of elation among Russian leads that, hey, we now are in a much better position in the triangle. We can take Trump's being nice to us as trying to make concessions. We can go to the Chinese and say, "Hey, you've got to pay us more for our oil and do this and this and this because we're in a better position now. You can't exploit us as much." But that didn't last.


And I think with China, the same, as the US tries to be nice to China, at least under the present leadership, it would just be seen as, "Okay, you're correcting your mistaken views. That's good. I'm glad you now understand how wrong your policies have been on trade and Taiwan and so on. So now that you've corrected those, we can have a better relationship." But it would take a while. So I don't think there's much in terms of major concessions the US and its allies can offer Russia and China that would lead them to abandon their ties with other. They also, particularly in the face of the US, doubt the staying power. Okay, let's just say that Trump comes back, and he tries to make concessions. Well, how do they know that when he leaves that office, his successor isn't going to reverse them again and so on? So I think that for now there's not much the US can do or offer that's going to weaken their ties at the high level. Maybe there are some things we can do at a lower level in particular sectors that would help weaken their ties.


Question:

We have another comment starting with a claim that the wells in Siberia are suffering from a lack of maintenance as Russian oil goes offline. Will Xi have to reconsider whether Russia can really deliver?


Dr. Richard Weitz:

Well, China hasn't put all their baskets on Russian oil and gas. They get them from Central Asia, Africa. So even if that goes down a bit, I don't think that's going to be enough to pull to cause China to lose interest in Russia. In a way, Russia's valued for many other things rather than just as energy imports. And so even if those fall, that only removes one pillar of the relationship, and it's not a crucial pillar, in my view.

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