China Shuns Swiss Peace Summit to Support Russia

Xi Jinping’s hosting of Russian President Vladimir Putin in Beijing two weeks ago has sharpened attention to the trajectory of China and Russia’s relationship. Xi’s diplomatic meetings with European leaders have consistently fueled European disunity, while those with Putin have fostered reinforced Sino-Russian ties in opposition to the U.S. and China’s ongoing support of Russia’s war against Ukraine. These trends appear to be continuing. This week, the U.S. threatened to apply further sanctions on China over its support for Russia’s war. On Friday, as Laurie Chen and Liz Lee reported for Reuters, China announced that it will not attend the upcoming Swiss peace summit on the war in Ukraine:

Switzerland is seeking a broad-based turnout from different parts of the world for the summit in mid-June, which Bern hopes will lay the groundwork for a peace process in Ukraine.

Moscow was not invited and dismisses the talks as meaningless without its participation.

“The arrangements for the meeting still fall far short of China’s requests and the general expectations of the international community, making it difficult for China to participate,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said at a routine briefing.

“China has always insisted that an international peace conference should be endorsed by both Russia and Ukraine, with the equal participation of all parties, and that all peace proposals should be discussed in a fair and equal manner. Otherwise it will be difficult for it to play a substantive role in restoring peace.”

[… China’s conditions that were not met] included that the conference should be recognised by both Russia and Ukraine, there should be equal participation by all parties, and there should be fair discussion of all proposals, one of the sources said. [Source]

Ukraine has expressed disappointment at China’s decision: “We are very sorry that the Chinese side does not use the opportunity to present its position on the platform of the summit in Switzerland,” a spokesperson of the Ukrainian embassy in Beijing stated. There were high hopes during Xi’s trip to Paris earlier this month that China would agree to participate; instead, Xi merely supported the idea of an “Olympic truce.” On Thursday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov suggested that China could arrange a separate Russia-Ukraine peace conference. 

Xi’s meeting with Putin underscored the close ties between them and their countries. According to the South China Morning Post, the pair have met 43 times since 2013 and are expected to meet again in Kazakhstan in July. The Chinese version of their joint statement was over a third longer than the one issued during Xi’s visit to Russia last year, highlighting the wide range of areas for bilateral cooperation. In a ChinaFile roundtable this week, Ukrainian researcher Vita Golod provided a Ukrainian perspective on Xi and Putin’s meeting and their evolving relationship

The Xi-Putin meeting elicited a strong negative reaction in Ukraine, even causing a sense of panic. The meeting included discussion of military cooperation between Russia and China, which the U.S. is “profoundly concerned” about, and which has exacerbated the already negative perception of China in Ukraine.

Furthermore, many in Ukraine believe that China is establishing a dominant-subordinate relationship with Russia, leveraging this situation to penetrate various sectors of the Russian economy. The presence of Russian bank representatives in Putin’s Beijing delegation indeed underscores Russia’s efforts to develop an alternative financial system that circumvents the dollar. This development is particularly concerning for Ukraine, as it suggests the increasing support from amoral Chinese businesses for the Russian war effort, without the fear of facing sanctions.

The worst imaginable outcome of the Russian invasion of Ukraine is the potential use of nuclear weapons, which Putin has signaled. This is a global threat that could provoke a third world war. Ukraine has repeatedly requested China to provide a nuclear security guarantee, a plea that has been consistently ignored. As the situation approaches a critical juncture, the question looms: Did Xi Jinping leverage his meeting with Putin in Beijing on May 16 to prevent a catastrophic outcome? We may never know the details of their private discussions, but such efforts would contribute significantly to building a community with a shared future for mankind. [Source]

In a Q&A with Mary Glantz published last week by the U.S. Institute of Peace, Carla Freeman described what lies behind the deepening Russia-China partnership:

Carla Freeman: Xi and Putin clearly have a personal rapport, which some speculate reflects at least in part their shared experience of the collapse of the Soviet Union as a traumatic event and a concomitant shared worldview. Although Xi has never expressed outright support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, he appears to see the Ukraine conflict as part of a global struggle against U.S.-led Western hegemony, or even imperialism. There are hints in the joint statement of a shared vision of a China-Russia partnership enabling a shift toward a new global order.

But strategic convenience also underpins China’s improving ties with Russia. Beijing perceives the U.S. challenge to its increasingly assertive position on sovereignty claims and maritime jurisdiction, as well as U.S. tariffs and other restrictions on Chinese access to U.S. advanced technologies, as efforts to constrain its rise. Forging deeper ties with Russia has a strategic and security logic, particularly given the two countries’ long shared border — a past source of military friction but now a channel for Russian resources — and Moscow’s considerable prowess in the military, technological and scientific arenas. [Source]

In a podcast discussion between Angela Stent, Yun Sun, and Adrianna Pita on The Current by the Brookings Institution, Yun Sun outlined how China benefits from its relationship with Russia:

There are indeed quite a few angles that China is benefiting from this relationship. The most important one being geopolitical. Because when China looks around, it looks at the United States and looks at this great power competition and look at the increasing isolation of China by the West. I think the Chinese see in Russia a partner that will keep China not as isolated as otherwise would be. So this geopolitics is always overarching factor when China looks at its relationship with Russia and makes a determination that we cannot abandon Russia and this alignment still serves China’s national interest in a very critical way. So that’s the first factor, the geopolitics.

Second one is energy. China remains to be, I believe, the number one importer of crude oil globally. And Russia does play a significant role in that equation. And I just mentioned that China’s import of crude oil from Russia increased by, I believe it was 26% in the year of 2023. But if you look at the value of that import, it only increased by 4%, which means that China has been importing Russian oil at a premium or lower than previous price. And this is significant for China’s energy security.

The third aspect is technology or technological cooperation. In the past, we know that China and Russia have engaged in a number of military technology transfers, Russian arms sales to China. So the military technological cooperation is still quite a big piece between the two countries. There are also cooperations in terms of nuclear. We know that Russia has been a large exporter of civil nuclear power plants to the world and it has a number of cooperation with China. There are also other areas of cooperation in terms of technology such as space, such as, for example energy implementation or energy exploration for example in the Arctic, so there are at least those three fields that China benefits from the relationship with Russia. [Source]

In a piece for the Center for European Policy and Analysis this week, Michael Sheridan noted that China and Russia jointly shifted their stance on nuclear weapons after their recent summit, in a sign of increasing risk tolerance:

Buried in the joint communiqué was a series of mutual understandings on nuclear arms by this de facto alliance against the democracies.

[…] The omission came in a section of the communiqué repeating support for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the Joint Statement by five nuclear powers (the USA, Russia, China, the UK, and France) of 3 January 2022 affirming that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”

In a previous statement, Putin and Xi had added that all nuclear weapons states should not deploy such weapons abroad and should withdraw any already deployed. This time, the language was missing.

In essence, this demonstrated China’s formal assent to the move by Putin to station nuclear weapons on the territory of Belarus at the invitation of his ally, the dictator Aleksandr Lukashenka. [Source]

On the other hand, Oleg Yanovsky, a lecturer at MGIMO, Russia’s leading foreign affairs and diplomacy university, argued in The Diplomat this week that the Xi-Putin summit was less about Ukraine and more about long-term changes to the world architecture: “The three major wheels set in motion are cooperation on infrastructure, consolidation of Eurasian institutions and security alignment, and Russia officially positioning itself against AUKUS. These point to the summit was in fact not aimed at Ukraine, but instead saw China and Russia take the initiative to create a ‘new era’ of a ‘just world order,’ as their lengthy joint statement put it.”

On Thursday, Foreign Affairs published a roundtable debate on U.S. strategy for competing with China, in which the high-profile participants shared differing views of the China-Russia partnership. Meanwhile at South China Morning Post this week, Yuanyue Dang interviewed Shen Zhihua, China’s leading expert on Cold War history, who discussed his views on what historical China-Soviet relations tell us about China and the wider world today

My basic view is that [Russian President Vladimir] Putin wants to go backwards and rebuild the Russian empire. You can see this in what he is doing in the Caucasus, Chechnya, Belarus and Ukraine – he wants to bring back into the sphere of influence places that had been separated. This is actually a security threat to China, but it is opposed by the US and the West.

Now the relationship between China and the US is not good, so once again China and Russia have a common enemy that pushes them to unite.

In my opinion, China should stick to its foreign policy of the early days of reform and opening up, not aligning with others or drawing lines based on ideology. [Source]


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