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China In Eurasia Briefing: Xi's Long-Term Bet On Putin

Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) and Russian President Vladimir Putin attend a signing ceremony following their talks at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 21.
Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) and Russian President Vladimir Putin attend a signing ceremony following their talks at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 21.

Welcome back to the China In Eurasia briefing, an RFE/RL newsletter tracking China's resurgent influence from Eastern Europe to Central Asia.

I'm RFE/RL correspondent Reid Standish and here's what I'm following right now.

Xi's Long-Term Bet On Putin

Chinese leader Xi Jinping finished up a high-profile, three-day visit to Moscow that could have consequences for the future direction of the war in Ukraine. But as I reported here, there are extensive layers to this summit that go far beyond Russia's invasion and will ripple into the future.

Finding Perspective: As with much of China's foreign policy, Xi is playing the long game with his Russia trip.

It's a very strong message to the world that despite everything that's happened in the last year, from Moscow invading its neighbor, the death and destruction that the war has brought, Russian President Vladimir Putin's nuclear saber-rattling, and an arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court issued for him -- that China will continue to deepen its already close ties with Moscow.

What We Learned From Xi's Meeting With Putin
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And that's because Beijing believes that it's in its interest to do so and that it needs Russia for a future where China will find itself in a tense and lasting competition -- or potentially more -- with the United States.

This summit was more about pomp and symbolism than substance. The joint statement for the visit outlined plans for future economic cooperation and plans to keep moving forward with the Power of Siberia 2 gas pipeline to China, although it stopped short of confirming it.

One of the key takeaways of the visit is that the power disparity between China and Russia -- which was already skewed in Beijing's favor -- is set to grow.

Russia's economy is roughly 1-10th of China's and Russia now finds itself increasingly dependent on China in every aspect. The yuan is set to become Russia's top foreign currency and Russia needs new buyers for its energy, which gives China major leverage.

Why It Matters: The big question is how does Xi's long-term bet on Putin play out over the war in Ukraine?

So far, China has been reluctant to help Russia on the battlefield, although there is a steady rise in the trade of so-called dual-use goods, which are commercial goods that can be repurposed in some capacity for military equipment. There's also trade data showing private sales of things like body armor and even some small firearms being bought from private Chinese companies and sent to Russia to help with the war effort.

As Dennis Wilder, a former director for China on the U.S. National Security Council, told me, China could covertly send artillery shells to Russia. Its stockpiles are plentiful, it has a shared border, or it could send things via a third-party.

Moreover, he added that "it's easy to remove factory markings from shells and replace them with another country's, and it would be very hard for [the United States] to prove that the Chinese did something like that."

Still, a more stepped-up form of Chinese support could escalate things on the battlefield and bring potential backlash for China, particularly with its two largest trading partners, the European Union and the United States.

Given its current economic circumstances at home, it doesn't look like Beijing can afford to be a rival to both.

Expert Corner: Beijing's Future In The Middle East

Readers asked: "Why does China want to supplant the United States in the Middle East? It seems like a risky move that could backfire on Beijing. What kind of future role is China actually carving out for itself there?"

To find out more, I asked Tuvia Gering, an expert on China's role in the Middle East at the Institute for National Security Studies in Israel:

"This is a trick question; who says China wants to replace the United States in the region? 'China doesn't want to become the world's police,' as retired Senior Colonel Zhou Bo told me two weeks ago. Despite recent developments, we have no reason to believe China's stance has shifted. Given our region's reputation as a graveyard for superpowers, the risk, as correctly identified in the second part of the question, is one that Chinese policymakers and scholars are well aware of.

"Furthermore, in the short term, I see little risk and more benefits for China. In the trilateral statement between Iran, Saudi Arabia, and China issued in Beijing, no Chinese commitments or assurances were made in the event that one of the conflicting parties violated the truce. If this happens, this allows China to take a step back and let the people of the region and the United States' forces deal with the consequences. Ironically, it would almost certainly blame America for being the 'root cause' of the theoretical conflict.

"In the long run, however, the recent move could signal the start of a trend of increasing Chinese diplomatic and security involvement in hotspot regions around the world. For one thing, as China's interests abroad expand, so does the need to protect them. For another, Xi Jinping's China is becoming more assertive in undermining Western hegemony and what it sees as the rules-based international order.

"If the U.S.-China relationship deteriorates further, China's 'spirit of struggle,' as Xi demands of the Chinese people, is likely to spread beyond the fault lines of the Taiwan Strait or the South China Sea. In this regard, the Middle East is emerging as a top contender."

Do you have a question about China's growing footprint in Eurasia? Send it to me at or reply directly to this e-mail and I'll get it answered by leading experts and policymakers.

Three More Stories From Eurasia

1. Xi The Statesman

Xi's Moscow trip is just the latest in a string of diplomatic moves that highlight Beijing's willingness to reshape the international order and brandish Xi's status as a statesman on the global stage.

What You Need To Know: China achieved a diplomatic coup when it helped broker a deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia on March 10, as I reported here, and that momentum looks set to continue.

Beyond the summit with Putin and the Middle East deal, Honduras -- which was one of the few countries to still recognize Taiwan -- announced that it plans to switch its ties to Beijing. Later this month, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva will travel to Beijing to meet with Xi.

This comes after earlier visits this year from Belarus's Alyaksandr Lukashenka and Iran's Ebrahim Raisi.

It's part of a broader play from China to win influence across the Global South and while it raises questions about its sustainability in the medium and long term, it's clearly yielding some early results.

2. An Insider's View

Zhou Bo, a retired senior colonel in the People's Liberation Army, has been a regular international commentator lately at leading conferences and in the media, where he has helped articulate Beijing's point of view on key issues.

In a recent interview with Time magazine, he offered some interesting insights on how China sees Russia and its invasion of Ukraine.

The Details: Among some of the more interesting passages of the interview, Zhou is critical of Russia's war effort and how it has performed on the battlefield, adding that he doesn't believe that "so far Russia has regretted this war, but I think they would regret the way they fought the war."

In terms of Beijing's view on a settlement for the war in Ukraine and its future, he said, "Russia cannot win this war, but Russia won't lose this war either." However, Zhou acknowledged that neither Moscow nor Kyiv is truly open to negotiations yet. Both are willing to keep giving war a chance.

Zhou seemed to question the West's long-term commitment to Ukraine and tout Beijing's potential status as a peace broker, although he seemed pragmatic about the prospects of ending the war.

"China stands ready when it can help, but only these countries can solve the issue, they have to come to a cease-fire first," he said.

3. Welcome Back

With pandemic restrictions in China finally lifted, group travel is back and Chinese tourists are returning to Russia, Current Time's Anton Benediktov reports.

What It Means: With Western tourists largely gone and the country facing a contracting economy, Russian tour operators have high hopes that Chinese tourists can be a lasting fix. According to Russia's Association of Tour Operators, the number of foreign tourists fell by 96 percent after Moscow invaded Ukraine.

Many Chinese tourists who were interviewed say they care little about Western sanctions and that their bank cards didn't work while in Russia and are instead curious about the country and to see it for themselves.

"Many tourists hope to come to Russia to see what the former Russian older brother looks like now," one Chinese tourist said.

Russia's tourism industry, meanwhile, appears to be reorienting itself towards the Chinese market. Large hotel chains are apparently offering basic Chinese-language training to staff and switching their breakfast buffets to reflect Chinese tastes.

Across The Supercontinent

China's Crackdown: Bakytkhan Myrzan, an ethnic Kazakh religious researcher who has been imprisoned in Xinjiang, died on March 7, RFE/RL's Kazakh Service reported.

From Prague to Taipei: Marketa Pekarova Adamova, the head of the Czech Republic's lower house of parliament, is set to lead a delegation to Taiwan on March 25 in a trip that has already drawn Beijing's ire.

The Superpowers Aren't Alright: According to a new poll by the Pew Research Center, young people aged 18 to 29 in the United Kingdom, France, and Germany have few positive things to say about the United States or China as major players on the world stage.

While focus groups were wary of China's rise and what its ambitions would mean for global peace, young adults were also "eager to see their countries maintain a strong, more independent presence on the world stage without relying on policy cues from the [United States]."

Tick Tock: Pressure is building in the United States to ban the popular social-media app TikTok, with its CEO Shou Zi Chew set to face questions about the app's security risks during a House of Representatives hearing on March 23.

One Thing To Watch

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen will make sensitive stopovers in the United States on her way to and from Central America in a move that could further inflame tensions with China for both Taipei and Washington.

She will transit through New York and Los Angeles as part of a trip to Guatemala and Belize, leaving Taipei on March 29 and returning on April 7. While in California, Tsai will reportedly meet with U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Kevin McCarthy, although neither side has confirmed the unofficial meeting.

Beijing has warned against the meeting should it take place and has already protested against it with Washington.

That's all from me for now. Don't forget to send me any questions, comments, or tips that you might have.

Until next time,

Reid Standish

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    Reid Standish

    Reid Standish is an RFE/RL correspondent in Prague and author of the China In Eurasia briefing. He focuses on Chinese foreign policy in Eastern Europe and Central Asia and has reported extensively about China's Belt and Road Initiative and Beijing’s internment camps in Xinjiang. Prior to joining RFE/RL, Reid was an editor at Foreign Policy magazine and its Moscow correspondent. He has also written for The Atlantic and The Washington Post.

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About The Newsletter

China In Eurasia
Reid Standish

In recent years, it has become impossible to tell the biggest stories shaping Eurasia without considering China’s resurgent influence in local business, politics, security, and culture.

Subscribe to this biweekly dispatch in which correspondent Reid Standish builds on the local reporting from RFE/RL’s journalists across Eurasia to give you unique insights into Beijing’s ambitions and challenges.

To subscribe, click here.