With speeches and gestures in recent weeks, Xi has taken his most significant steps to create space between Beijing and Moscow since Putin invaded Ukraine almost nine months ago. The latest signal came at the Group of 20 summit on the Indonesian resort island of Bali, where China signed off on a communique Wednesday saying that “most members strongly condemned the war in Ukraine.”
“The Russian president is almost alone in the world with his policy and has no strong alliance partner,” German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who met Xi in Beijing earlier this month, told reporters in Bali on Wednesday. He noted the statement’s “astonishingly clear words.”
That show of solidarity followed a series of relatively warm meetings between Xi and world leaders who have led the campaign to punish Moscow, including his first sit-down with US President Joe Biden on Monday. In those talks, Xi reinforced his opposition to the use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine — a stance that outlines China’s red lines without abandoning Russia altogether.
The moves appeared to be part of a broader return to pragmatism since Xi set himself up to rule for life by breaking succession norms at a twice-a-decade party congress last month. China has also in the past week relaxed Covid quarantine requirements and delivered a plan to rescue the battered property sector — telegraphing shifts in key policies blamed for battering financial markets and the economy.
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“Finally getting all these meetings legitimately raises the prospect of whether this is a juncture after the congress where we will finally see that slight shift in tone,” said Andrew Gilholm, director of analysis for China and North Asia at Control Risks.
“Still I’d be very surprised if we saw a more fundamental change in policy,” he added. “And certainly I don’t think there’s any chance of sort of abandoning Russia and making major shifts.”
Russia is expecting a state visit from Xi next year, probably after Chinese parliamentary meetings in March, Igor Morgulov, Russia’s ambassador to China, told reporters Thursday, according to the Russian News Agency TASS.
Xi is looking to reestablish himself on the world stage after avoiding overseas travel for the first two and 1/2 years of the pandemic — a period during which opinions of China deteriorated in most developed nations. During his meeting with Biden in Bali, Xi sought to cast himself as a grown-up in a world riven by divisions.
“A statesman should think about and know where to lead his country,” Xi said in a remark that could apply to Biden or Putin as much as himself. “He should also think about and know how to get along with other countries and the wider world.”
That doesn’t mean Xi is tearing up the “no limits” partnership he proclaimed with Putin weeks before the Russian leader launched the biggest conflict on the European continent since World War II. Beijing views Moscow as a valuable partner in challenging US power and still refuses to publicly condemn the war.