Russia and China battle over Earth domination

Beijing’s benign panda sells more to Moscow’s bear, buys more (and cheaper), but invests rather cautiously, i.e. only doing what it clearly profits from. The hand extended by Chairman Xi seems to take rather than give...

The picture on the front page of the Global Times says it all. In the centre, not exactly on the main axis, so that the composition is not too tedious and obvious, but certainly and without any doubt in the centre, stands President Xi. His eyes are squinted and no pupils are visible, so their expression remains inscrutable. His face is framed by a smile that, with some good will, could be called good-natured. In the hand that hangs loosely at the level of his abdomen, he holds the hand of a man standing next to him who seems to be supporting the hand of a partner taller than himself and more powerful.

The latter is Vladimir Putin. His face, too, has frozen into the smiling expression that the Russian president is accustomed to adopting in official circumstances. His eyes are turned sideways, his expression somewhat distracted, as if someone outside the frame has done something to draw his attention. Xi Jingping is looking straight into the camera. He looks bold and confident. The casual observer in spite of himself returns to the positioning of Xi’s hand, and there is no doubt: it is a gesture of a lord, a gesture of someone who is doing the shaker of his hand a favour.

The Global Times is the Chinese contemporary equivalent of the communist Pravda or, looking closer, the People’s Tribune. This is not to say that it bears any resemblance to those titles from the decline of communism in the Soviet Union or the communist Poland. China is far from a decline. It is flourishing as a superpower. Therefore, the analogy must rather be sought more than half a century ago, when the secretary-general of the CPSU was regarded as one of the two most powerful people in the world. Reading between the lines in the texts published at the time was a compulsory activity for anyone who wanted to know anything about the Soviet Union.

Similarly, nowadays, reading between the lines of the texts in the Global Times can sometimes be helpful when one wants to know where China stands. Its editors know this very well, so no element is left to chance. In addition, it is an authority (that’s probably the right name) published in English, so the content hidden between the lines is meant to reach a worldwide audience. This obliges all the more to be disciplined.

The photograph the editors placed above the article summarising President Xi’s visit to Moscow, otherwise full of fine words for the hosts and assurances of friendship, cooperation and partnership, was the best summary of the current state of relations between China and Russia. It could hardly be more telling: confident in his position, Xi stands next to Putin – who is trying to make up for it with his face – and graciously shakes his soft hand, which Putin tries to squeeze in a manly way.

This is not a partner attitude, although, it should be clearly noted, it is not a vassal attitude either. No, Putin does not look like Xi’s vassal. In fact, Xi wants nothing from him. Putin can do anything and Xi will let him do it, at the same time distancing himself from it. But this is just that distance that Putin fears most. This soft hand does not enslave, but neither does it support.

As some observers have noted, the joint statement by Xi and Putin did not include the phrase about a “no limits partnership” that so raised the pressure of politicians and observers around the world last year. It was used in a communiqué from a meeting between the two politicians a month before the outbreak of war, and was widely interpreted as Beijing’s acquiescence to Moscow’s military action on the one hand, and an announcement of Chinese support for the war on the other.

The last year has shown that the interpreters were wrong, and the absence of this phrase in the official language of the leaders now is significant. China still does not support Russia in its war with Ukraine, and the fact that Xi did not remind us of the lack of boundaries in the partnership, and Putin did not dare to remind him, may mean that clear limits are being placed on this very partnership. We do not yet know their exact course, but we can at least roughly sketch them out. The invaluable Global Times, with its subtle signals, which the Russians are also quite good at, may prove helpful here.

  On the day of Xi Jingping’s landing in Moscow, the Chinese authority posted two extremely distinctive texts. The first was an article by Russian political scientist and programme director of the Valdai Club, Timofey Bordachev. With all the fine words that usually accompany official visits, he emphasised the equivalence of China and Russia, their equal rights in mutual relations and their status as superpowers.

He also stressed that the two countries were not pursuing an imperialist policy, which would make any thinking person smile piteously, but is a common incantation among dictators and their acolytes, signalling that they are moving in a kind of meta-reality in which the meaning of words is suspended. As an aside, let us note that Xi Jingping’s entire twelve-point “peace plan” is written precisely in a way that clearly creates this meta-reality (or simply – unreality).

Bordachev also wrote about a multipolar world, the need to return to globalisation and, of course, accused the United States of all the evil in the world. The author – as I mentioned – emphasised the equality of partners and the normality of their relations. This was important: normality! One had the impression that he wanted to avoid at all costs any reference to exceptionalism. Just two ordinary powers pursuing an ordinary, good-neighbourly policy, friendly to the world, peace-loving and freely trading. War? What war? Not once in the entire text appears the name of the country Russia is trying to conquer. “Ukraine? Never heard of it,” Bordachev seemed to say.

Alongside this text, the Global Times posted its own editorial. There, the accents were laid out quite differently. The name Ukraine was mentioned several times, although the word “war” was not used so as not to hurt Russian friends too much. Sufficiently hurtful were the words about President Xi’s visit to Moscow being a “journey of peace” aimed at “building bridges” and facilitating communication between countries embroiled in the “Ukraine crisis”. Here, not only between the lines, but almost directly, one could read that Russia was presented as the partner that not only fails, but also has to be cleaned up after.

Officially, of course, the blame for fuelling the “crisis” has been placed on the United States, which is supplying arms to Ukraine and thus “putting out the fire with petrol”. However, this is a perfectly ordinary element of Chinese propaganda, which does not neglect any opportunity to rhetorically aggravate its arch-enemy, and such statements constitute obligatory staffage in Chinese official statements. However, the staffage should not be confused with the essential message, and that was undoubtedly a serious impatience with the irresponsible actions of the Russian dictator.

Once again, there was also the statement that China is in no way responsible for the “crisis” in Ukraine and is not a participant in it. They are merely a party that is unable to stand still in the face of any unrest and offers their good offices. As happened recently with Saudi Arabia and Iran, which decided to establish diplomatic relations thanks to China’s mediation. This political success is, incidentally, widely presented by Chinese propaganda as proof of the peaceful and constructive attitude of the country’s leadership. If it was successful in the Middle East, it will certainly be successful in Ukraine.

However, the Chinese comrades devoted most of their article to economic issues. Be that as it may, even if the war continues, it can always be said to be Biden’s fault, while true friendship is realised in trade and investment. But here, too, there was an element that might have caused the Kremlin host a dry throat, especially in view of the announcement of a “deep exchange of views” on the subject by the two leaders. Namely, the Global Times mentioned that both sides must “jointly ensure the stability and capacity of industrial supply chains”.
The Chinese have succeeded in bringing about reconciliation between hostile Muslim countries. Chinese Foreign Ministry chief Wang Yi (center) and representatives of Iran's Ali Shamkhani (right) and Saudi Arabia's Musaid Al Aiban (left) at the signing of the agreement in Beijing. Photo: CHINA DAILY / Reuters / Forum
In short, China is seriously concerned that its trade will be threatened by hostilities. The stabilisation of trade routes, moreover, was a fundamental reason for China’s involvement in the Saud-Iran rapprochement. Nothing must stand in the way of the transport of Chinese goods. This is the first and most fundamental goal of Xi Jingping’s policy, we should add – an existential goal.

The Russians are, of course, rejoicing at the increase in trade, but there are many indications that it is a joy with clenched teeth. The de-dollarisation (and de-euroisation) of trade, which is proceeding apace and which both sides like to portray as a blow to their common enemy, America, actually means a yuanisation of Russia’s own trade. Because settlements in dollars and euros have fallen from 65% to 46% (still almost half), but only the Chinese currency has benefited, rising from 4% to 23%, while the ruble has fallen from 29% to 27% in this period. So the dynamics of the process imply the marginalisation of the rouble in the long term, and there is nothing on the horizon to suggest otherwise.

It is worth recalling how, at the beginning of the war, the Russians very firmly enforced the transfer of settlements with hostile Europe to roubles, defending the position of their own currency. Some countries, such as Poland, did not agree and were punished, while others, such as Germany and Austria, submitted to the dictates that saved the Russian budget. In its “friendly” relations with China, Russia cannot afford any demands and orders (after all, they are friends) and is gradually weakening its own position by falling into the ruthless embrace of an ally. Putin’s idea of the BRICS countries creating their own reserve currency may be a certain salvation, but Vladimir Vladimirovich is probably the only one who would like to see it implemented.

The Russians are also subtly (because, after all, you can’t be unsubtle when you sit down at the table with friends) hinting that they would like to see more Chinese investment in their country. The economist from the Valdai Club, Yaroslav Lissovolik (N.B. chief economist of Deutsche Bank’s Russian operations in the past), commenting on Xi’s visit, wrote with concealed disapproval that in recent years Chinese direct investment in Russia has only grown by around 3% a year, and this is significantly less than the growth in trade.

So you can see how the benign Chinese panda treats its best friend: it sells more, it buys more (and cheaper), but it invests quite cautiously, i.e. it only does what it clearly profits from. The hand extended by Chairman Xi seems to take rather than give...

The asymmetry in the attitudes of both sides can be seen not only in the photograph of Xi and Putin with which I started. In many comments, one can read discreet signals showing that it is Russia that cares more about mutual relations and it is Russia that is ready to invest more to uphold them. It is interesting that while the Chinese repeat ad nauseam and at every opportunity that the war with Ukraine is not their war and they are not involved in it in any way, there is a much greater willingness on the Russian side to stand by an ally (informal, but nevertheless).

The head of Russia’s official think tank RIAC, Andrei Kortunov, when asked in an interview by the Global Times what Russia would do if there was a conflict with the United States over Taiwan, replied that Moscow would side with Beijing in such a situation. Although he immediately ritualistically added that he hoped it would not come to that.

Russia as China’s backstop against the planned invasion of Taiwan? It is a bit reminiscent of Mr Zagloba (a fictional character from Henryk Sienkiewicz’s Trilogy) offering the Netherlands to the Swedish king, but the fact remains that such a declaration – even if made by someone who does not have political agency – seems a rarity.

From the Russian side, another signal of a warlike nature has been broadcast, which could be potentially worrying and could mean that Russia will want to resort in its relations with China to its only resource that makes it a real superpower. Nuclear weapons.

Battle for Taiwan. US losses: 10,000 casualties, two aircraft carriers sunk

China has a chance to win.

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The former long-standing director of the Moscow branch of the Carnegie Foundation, Dmitri Trenin, who clearly treated affiliation with the US foundation instrumentally and now expresses views that are as acceptable as possible to the Kremlin, commenting on President Xi’s visit stressed that the fundamental goal of both superpowers (there’s that language again!) is to destroy the global hegemony of the United States and to prevent them through “deeds not words from escalating the proxy war in Ukraine and provoking China against Taiwan”. Trenin went on to write a sentence worth quoting in full: “One specific area for deeper dialogue is nuclear policy and nuclear-related proliferation in the current conditions of confrontation between great powers and actual conflict.”

Translating Trenin’s political newspeak into clearer language, this could mean that Russia has found itself in such a difficult position vis-à-vis its Chinese friend that it will be forced to share nuclear technologies with it. Here, Russia is still many times stronger than China, which has around 400 warheads and has implemented a nuclear programme aimed at almost tripling this number by 2030. Cooperation in this field could be really attractive for China. And such cooperation Putin could sell really dearly. Will he decide to do so?

Another interpretation of Trenin’s words is the possibility that they were meant for third countries and intended to intimidate Ukraine and the West with visions of close nuclear cooperation between China and Russia. Let us hope that this is again a case of scaremongering and “warhead-rattling”, as Putinists have done more than once in the past, to no avail.

At a banquet given in Xi’s honour in the Kremlin, the Chinese guest was said to have told his host that “the world is currently experiencing changes not seen for a century”, while “we are the ones who are jointly bringing about these changes”. Putin was to reply that he agreed. Could it be that they both believe they can win the “battle for Earth” together? Let us hope, however, that they underestimate the bravery of the old American battleship...

– Robert Bogdanski

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

– Translated by jz
Main photo: Presidents Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin during their meeting in Moscow on 21 March 2023. Photo: EPA/XINHUA / Xie Huanchi CHINA OUT / PAP/EPA
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