After his arrival in Moscow on Monday, President Xi Jinping said that China is ready, along with Russia, ‘to stand guard over the world order based on international law’. This statement came closer than ever before to articulating his view that a normative struggle is going on between a western-dominated order, and one more suited to Beijing’s interests. As he departed yesterday, he went further: ‘Right now there are changes, the likes of which we haven’t seen for 100 years. And we are the ones driving these changes together.’
Having positioned himself as a potential peacemaker, Xi clearly believes the war in Ukraine presents him with a win-win situation – or even a win-win-win one. His thinking is that, if Vladimir Putin ends up clawing some kind of victory, the West will be discredited and is likely to descend into recrimination and introspection. In other words: a win for Xi.
However, if Ukraine triumphs, then Russia’s slump into Chinese vassalage will be accelerated: another win for China. Russia’s economy is already trading a dependence on the dollar for one on the yuan: many in Moscow worry that where the economy leads, policy follows.
Then there is the third outcome. If Beijing brokers a peace deal with its 12-point plan (and Putin may well be more likely to swallow a bitter pill if it is presented by Beijing), then its claims to being a true global power and a principled alternative to the West are vindicated.
Yet this tar-baby of a war might not necessarily prove quite as congenial to Chinese interests as Xi believes. From my own experience, while Putin and his septuagenarian cronies are obsessed with fighting the West – at the expense of everything else – the next generation of Russian leaders waiting in the wings are much more Beijing-sceptic. They are keenly aware, too, of the dangers of being sucked into China’s orbit.