BBC: What is Xi Jinping prepared to pay for Putin’s war?


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Apr 25, 2020
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What is Xi Jinping prepared to pay for Putin’s war?

More than two years into his invasion of Ukraine, China has emerged as a vital ally. It has refused to condemn the war and continues to trade with a heavily sanctioned Russia, much to the ire of the US and the European Union.

However, it appears Mr Putin wants more. But is China willing to pay the price?

It is perhaps not surprising the Russian leader has chosen China as his first foreign trip since he was sworn in for a fifth presidential term last week. The two-day state visit comes as their relationship reached its "highest level ever", he told Chinese state media. He spoke of his interest in Chinese philosophy, and said some of his family are learning Mandarin.

"In the face of a difficult international situation, our relations are still strengthening," he said.

But while Mr Putin brags about their friendship, Mr Xi might have reason to worry.

The US has just announced a raft of new sanctions against Beijing and Hong Kong-based banks and companies that work with Moscow, allegedly helping to evade existing restrictions.

Because, while China is not selling arms to Russia, Washington and Brussels believe it is exporting tech and components essential for war. During his recent trip to Beijing, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the BBC that China was "helping fuel the biggest threat" to European security since the Cold War.

For them, this has become a red line. But China insists its stance on Ukraine is neutral - and the exports, which have commercial uses outside of war, are not breaking the rules.

Nevertheless, the allegations followed Mr Xi on his trip to France last week, distracting from what was supposed to be a charm offensive.

The Sino-sceptics and China hawks are also getting louder, urging Mr Xi to exert more pressure on his Russian counterpart, as the EU mulls tariffs of its own.

All of this leaves Mr Xi in an awkward situation.

Days before Russia invaded Ukraine, the two leaders announced a "no-limits" partnership to deepen co-operation. This made sense for the comrades in arms in their ideological struggle against the West.

Beijing still sees Moscow as key to reshaping a US-led world order. Trade between them is flourishing. Cheap Russian energy, including steady gas shipments via the Power of Siberia pipeline, have been a benefit for China.

Yet, as the war has dragged on, the alliance has not seemed so "limitless". For one, the term has almost disappeared from state media, a BBC analysis has found.

Beijing is downplaying the limitless nature of its strategic partnership with Moscow, says Zhao Tong, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment.

"While China supports the goal of undermining Western influence, it does not agree with some of Russia's tactics, including the threat of using nuclear weapons. China is acutely aware of the costs of appearing to offer unconditional support to Russia."

On his recent visit to Europe, Mr Xi said the country is "neither the creator of the crisis, not a party to it or a participant". But with the West growing more impatient with their alliance and Mr Xi's hopes of playing peace keeper so far unsuccessful, he will be calculating the risk of continuing to stand "shoulder to shoulder" with an international pariah who he once called both a comrade and his "dear friend".
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