The ‘butterfly effect’ of the visit by Wang Yi, Member of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the People’s Republic of China and Director of the Office of the Foreign Affairs Commission of the CPC Central Committee, to Moscow on February 21-22 is already discernible. It can influence a much larger complex system still.
The two sides agreed to consolidate and develop the Russia-China comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination for a new era and to continue to closely coordinate their foreign policy efforts; the Ukraine crisis situation, which is at a tipping point, has further tilted in Russia’s favor; and, Chinese diplomacy on the post-pandemic rebound is signalling a periodic long-term behavior that can generate ‘deterministic chaos’ in Eurasia and Asia-Pacific.
Wang Yi had meetings with the Secretary of Russia’s Security Council Nikolai Patrushev — as coordinators of the mechanism of China-Russia Strategic Security Consultation — and with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and President Vladimir Putin.
The Russian readout said that “The parties praised the current state of Russian-Chinese relations, which continue to expand dynamically in the context of sharp changes in the international arena… They underscored the importance of further strengthening close foreign policy coordination… They also reiterated the futility of attempts by third countries to impede the healthy, dynamic progress of Russian-Chinese relations, to restrain the development of our countries through sanctions and other illegitimate means.”
Wang Yi conveyed to Putin that “Russia-China relationship has stood the test of the drastic changes in the world landscape and become mature and tenacious, standing as firm as Mount Tai… Although crises and chaos often emerge, challenges and opportunities exist at the same time, and this is the dialectics of history.”
He said China is ready to work with Russia “to maintain strategic resolve, deepen political mutual trust, strengthen strategic coordination, expand practical cooperation and defend the legitimate interests of both countries, to play a constructive role in promoting world peace and development.”
Putin expressed “the warmest words of gratitude” to Wang Yi for the booming bilateral trade (which reached $185 billion last year.) In the conditions under sanctions, for Russia, this is a crucial lifeline. Putin mentioned cooperation in the international arena as particularly important “for stabilizing the international situation” and stressed that the Russian side is expecting a visit by President Xi Jinping.
The Ukraine situation figured prominently in Wang Yi’s meeting with Lavrov where he dwelt on China’s “vision of the root causes of the Ukraine crisis” and China’s approaches to a political settlement. The Russian readout said Lavrov “commended Beijing’s constructive policy and reaffirmed the high level of proximity of our assessments of this agenda.”
The Chinese readout said Putin and Wang Yi “exchanged in-depth views on the Ukraine issue. Wang Yi appreciated Russia’s reaffirmation of its readiness to solve problems through dialogue and negotiations. China will, as always, uphold an objective and just position and play a constructive role in the political settlement.”
Significantly, a day after Wang Yi returned to Beijing from Moscow, the Foreign Ministry issued a statement titled ‘China’s Position on the Political Settlement of the Ukraine Crisis’. Presumably, Wang Yi sensitized the Russian side beforehand, as the foreign ministry in Moscow lost no time on the same day to effusively compliment “our Chinese friends.”
The Chinese statement, couched in principles of neutrality, distinctly tilted in Russia’s favor. The core issues highlighted by Moscow in its December 2021 proposal for dialogue with NATO and the US (which the latter ignored) find mention in the Chinese statement.
Significantly, the Chinese statement strongly rejected the unilateral sanctions and maximum pressure by the US and EU against Russia and the West’s “long-arm jurisdiction” against other countries. No wonder, the western capitals have taken a dim view of the Chinese statement and see it as loaded in favor of Russia.
The Chinese statement, issued on the first anniversary of the Russian operations in Ukraine, has factored in that the conflict has existential overtones for Moscow and Russia’s defeat is simply unthinkable as that would fundamentally shift the global strategic balance against China. Interestingly, there is a pointed reference in the Chinese readout on Wang Yi’s talks with Patrushev (Russia’s highest-ranking security official) to the effect that “Both sides believed that peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region should be firmly defended and that the introduction of the Cold War mentality, bloc antagonism and ideological confrontation should be opposed.”
The Chinese statement on Ukraine followed the release of two major foreign policy documents in Beijing on successive days. The first one dated February 20 is a frontal attack on the US foreign policies, titled ‘US Hegemony and Its Perils’.
The 4,080-word document is a veritable iteration of thoughts and perspectives that are frequently articulated in Putin’s speeches and writings through the past 15-year period since his famous speech at the 2007 Munich Security Conference where the Russian leader spoke on international security problems in a unipolar world characterized by “one type of situation, namely one center of authority, one center of force, one centre of decision-making,” a world in which there is “one master, one sovereign.”
The second document issued in Beijing on February 21 is titled ‘The Global Security Initiative Concept Paper’. In 3580 words, it lays out the guardrails and guiding principles of Chinese foreign policy and stresses the priorities of cooperation in the world community.
Chinese foreign policy is shifting gear. Although the Ukraine crisis and the Taiwan problem cannot be compared, Beijing senses that the weakening of Russia is a vital segment of the US strategy to isolate and confront China, and therefore, the outcome of the conflict in Ukraine is going to be profoundly consequential for China. Indeed, a Russian defeat in Ukraine will constitute a severe setback for China too.
Wang Yi’s visit testifies that China is willing to step up solidarity with Russia at a juncture when any residual hopes of improving ties with the US have been dashed and that relationship is in free fall. Wang Yi’s meeting with Biden last week on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference did not go well. Meanwhile, the US officials are reportedly confabulating with Taiwan’s foreign minister and National Security Advisor.
President Biden has rejected any mediatory role for China in Ukraine. All things taken into account, the probability is that China may step up its support for Russia. The big question is whether this would take the form of military help. The CIA director William Burns stated last week that “we’re confident that the Chinese leadership is considering the provision of lethal equipment. We also don’t see that a final decision has been made yet, and we don’t see evidence of actual shipments of lethal equipment.”
Yesterday, when asked about US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan’s warning Sunday that there would be ‘real costs’ for China if it went forward with providing lethal aid to Russia, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning did not give a direct answer. “The US is in no position to point fingers at China-Russia relations. We do not accept coercion or pressure from the US,” she said.
Interestingly, the Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov also chose not to answer a related question as to whether Russia had asked China to provide any equipment for its special military operation.
The forthcoming visit by Xi Jinping to Moscow, likely to take place next month, will be a defining moment. There is a palpable sense of disquiet in the West, as China’s manufacturing capability exceeds that of the US and Europe combined. Russia is deferring the big offensive in Ukraine, pending Xi’s visit.
MK Bhadrakumar is a former diplomat. He was India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan and Turkey. The views are personal.