China Is Winning The Post-Ukraine Game, At Russia’s Expense
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- For his return to geopolitical frontlines after almost three years of Covid-19 isolation, Xi Jinping has chosen something of a victory lap.
The Chinese leader is set to visit Central Asia, starting in Kazakhstan on Wednesday and then moving on to a Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Uzbekistan. There he’ll meet Vladimir Putin for their first encounter since the Russian president traveled to the opening of the Beijing Olympics in February, shook hands with his counterpart, declared a friendship with “no limits” — and then launched an assault on Ukraine. It’ll be a week of political theater, and one from which Moscow, under growing pressure on the battlefield, should expect few substantial gains.
Xi’s itinerary has not been chosen by chance. Russia’s invasion of its western neighbor and the motivations laid out in Putin’s disquieting pre-attack speech — a rambling intervention that dismissed Ukraine’s right to exist and post-Soviet reality — sent a shudder through the region sitting to its south, where there are significant ethnic Russian minorities. Not only that, but Moscow’s unimpressive and ill-disciplined military performance has been duly noted by nations for whom the country is supposed to act as a security guarantor.
Central Asia’s red lines are being redrawn, its spheres of influence recast. China isn’t about to sit that out, even with a Party Congress weeks away.
The year started badly for Beijing in this part of the world. Chinese officials were caught off-guard by unrest in Kazakhstan, initially dismissing the protests as an “internal affair.” Putin, by contrast, was swift on his feet, answering President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s appeal for help by sending in troops from the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a loose Russian-led group. He helped salvage the regime and restore order, and reinforced the Kremlin’s role as protector. For all the talk of Beijing’s growing economic influence in the region, it was Russia that demonstrated a real understanding of the crisis in January and was able to drive events, as Temur Umarov of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace put it to me. Beijing understood it needed to pay closer attention.
Then came the war, with its implicit threats. In August, in a rapidly deleted social media post (later attributed to hackers), former-Russian president-turned-superhawk Dmitry Medvedev called Kazakhstan an “artificial state.” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba was clearer in an interview with an Uzbek newspaper last week: “I want everyone to understand that if we lose, then you will be next.”
Kazakhstan has been strikingly reluctant to fall into line behind Moscow, sending humanitarian support to Ukraine and remaining in contact with Kyiv. On stage next to Putin in June, Tokayev said that he would not recognize the self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk peoples’ republics of eastern Ukraine. The country is seeking alternative routes for its oil exports and has agreed to advance military intelligence collaboration with Turkey, a NATO member. Apart from anything else, Russia’s economy is a dead-end, leaving even crucial migrant remittances less reliable than they once were.
So while Xi’s visit isn’t a provocation — Kazakhstan was also where he chose to launch the Belt and Road Initiative in 2013, and the country has long balanced its relationships with China, Russia and the US — it certainly lends welcome visible support to Tokayev. It’s a reminder to Moscow that resource-rich Central Asia has other neighbors. No wonder Putin, a man in search of friends, has his own travel plans in the region.
But of course, a friend in need is a friend indeed, and Xi isn’t about to abandon Putin. The two are still autocrats, aligned in their opposition to Washington, fresh from joint military exercises. Both could use a little geopolitical showmanship — the trip was announced after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, Moscow is struggling to resist a Ukrainian offensive. But will anything come of their confab?
By meeting in an ostensibly neutral venue — not Moscow, say — and speaking on the sidelines of the SCO, Beijing suggests expectations should be low. The SCO is a vast grouping, representing more than two-fifths of the world’s population now that India and Pakistan have joined, but it amounts to less than the sum of its parts. As Jakub Jakobowski, who researches China’s foreign economic policy at the Center for Eastern Studies in Warsaw puts it, the SCO isn’t able to provide a coherent response to any international development, but it is an opportunity for a propaganda-friendly performance that will resonate in the Global South. That just doesn’t imply any substantial economic, let alone military, commitment.
Ukraine’s rapid advances over the last few days have certainly left China in an uncomfortable position. Xi has been unwilling to take costly or risky steps to support Putin, and yet Beijing also does not want to see an embarrassing defeat for the Kremlin, which would reflect badly on Xi and create unwelcome instability.
But Russia is down, not out. For now, expect China to continue to do what it has done since February — exclusively what is best for China. Over the past months, it has turned up the rhetoric but limited actual face-to-face diplomatic contact with Russia, with No. 3 official Li Zhanshu’s stop in Vladivostok for the Eastern Economic Forum the most senior visit since the invasion. It hasn’t significantly challenged the West’s financial and other measures, particularly in tech and military supplies — forcing Russia to go to North Korea and Iran. Instead, it has pragmatically bought up cheap raw materials, as India has. In a tender that closed last week, the Sakhalin-2 LNG export plant, struggling to sell to South Korea and Japan, sold several shipments to China at nearly half the current spot price.
All of this ensures profits continue to flow for Russia’s commodity giants. But it’s keeping the economy afloat at the cost of increased dependence on Beijing, left holding all the cards. Russia’s exports to China rose by 50% in the first eight months of the year, according to Kommersant, while Russia’s imports from there grew 8.5%.
Xi will come under pressure in Uzbekistan. The Chinese leader’s balancing act is more uncomfortable than ever — but it isn’t over yet. Not least because Beijing knows all too well that Putin has nowhere else to turn.
More From Bloomberg Opinion:
- Time Isn’t on Putin’s Side in Ukraine: Leonid Bershidsky
- China, Russia and Iran Are Ganging Up on the US: Hal Brands
- China and Russia Have a Central Asia Problem: Clara Ferreira Marques
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Clara Ferreira Marques is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and editorial board member covering foreign affairs and climate. Previously, she worked for Reuters in Hong Kong, Singapore, India, the U.K., Italy and Russia.
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