The last time Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin sat face to face, they triumphantly declared the arrival of a “new era” in international relations.
Amid a Western diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics and a looming crisis in Ukraine, the world’s two most powerful autocrats shared their vision for a new world order: one that would better serve the interests of their nations and would no longer be dominated by the West.
In a 5,000-word joint statement, the two leaders declared a “boundless” friendship and set out their shared grievances with the United States and its allies.
“The world is going through momentous changes,” their joint statement said, noting the “transformation of the architecture of global governance and world order.”
More than 200 days later, Xi and Putin are due to meet again at a regional summit in the city of Samarkand in southeastern Uzbekistan. A lot has changed, but not necessarily in the way that China or Russia might have expected.
Three weeks after meeting Xi in Beijing – and just days after the end of the Winter Olympics, Putin launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. He expected a quick victory, but seven months later Russia is far from winning. Its forces are exhausted, demoralized and fleeing the territories they have occupied for months.
And that makes China nervous. Having moved closer to Moscow under Xi, Beijing has a vested interest in the outcome of the war. A defeated Russia will strengthen the West and become a less useful and less reliable asset in the rivalry between China and the United States. A weakened Moscow could also be less of a distraction for the United States, allowing Washington to focus more directly on Beijing.
Xi has a fine line to toe. If he bends too far to help Russia, he risks exposing China to Western sanctions and diplomatic backlash that would hurt his own interests. The backlash would also come at a sensitive time for Xi, who is just weeks away from seeking a breakaway third term at the 20th Party Congress.
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