The Chinese Foreign Ministry speaks of a “journey of friendship”. But the meeting in Moscow takes place under very different circumstances for the two heads of state: For Xi it is the first foreign visit since his reappointment as Chinese President, for Putin the first summit since the International Criminal Court in The Hague put him on the hunt for a war criminal
So he is actually doing it: China’s head of state Xi Jinping will travel to Moscow this week to visit his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. The Kremlin had promised the controversial visit weeks ago, but so far there has been no confirmation from the Chinese side – and in the West many did not really want to believe that Xi would really take the step of honoring the internationally isolated warmonger Putin with a state visit , while Russian tanks roll through Ukraine. Last week, however, the Chinese Foreign Ministry also reported that Xi was going on a “journey of friendship” to Moscow.
The flowery description evokes memories of Putin’s last visit to Beijing, when he and Xi in February a year ago invoked a Russian-Chinese “friendship without borders” – less than three weeks before Russia invaded Ukraine. Since then, the western world has wondered how far Xi would actually go in his “friendship” with Putin. But China’s strategy remained primarily one of maneuvering: the country never came out with a clear condemnation of the Russian invasion, but never explicitly backed Moscow either. Instead, Beijing always pursued its own advantage in the Ukraine war: China benefited from cheaper gas and oil supplies from Russia, while Chinese companies in turn sold goods to Russia that could no longer be imported there due to Western sanctions. In the case of smartphones, for example, the Chinese market share in Russia has now reached 95 percent since Apple and Samsung withdrew due to sanctions.
China’s tacking position
Implicitly, of course, China’s party leadership made it clear on which side of the front line their sympathies lie. Around the world, Beijing reinforced the Russian propaganda narrative of the forced war the country must wage to resist NATO expansion and US imperial appetites. In many emerging countries of the Global South, China’s interpretation of the war situation was well received – and it understood how to cleverly sell its own role as a global counterweight to the USA.
Xi’s visit to Moscow will probably also present China to the world in this light. As early as January, Beijing presented a “peace plan” for Ukraine with a lot of diplomatic fanfare, which, however, contained hardly any concrete advances and basically called on both sides to stop the warlike actions – which for Ukraine de facto amounted to a recognition of the Russian conquests of territory. The fact that the plan was largely ignored internationally makes it all the easier for Beijing to portray itself as a peace-making force whose benevolent mediation efforts are only failing because of resistance from the West.
Xi as a peacemaker
Similarly, Xi is now likely to want to sell his “Journey of Friendship.” Unofficial sources have already said that China’s head of state also wants to talk to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on the phone these days. The trip to Moscow could then be presented as a peacekeeping mission undertaken with the aim of mediating between Russia and Ukraine. Beijing finally managed to do something similar with arch-enemies Iran and Saudi Arabia, who settled their disputes through Chinese mediation before the eyes of a stunned world public.
But in the case of the Ukraine war, a Chinese-mediated agreement seems unlikely. In Kiev, people are allowed to answer the phone when Xi calls, but China’s head of state can hardly present himself as an honest, impartial broker in Ukraine. In addition, there is still no viable negotiated solution to the Ukraine war that does not result in the forced cession of territory for Kiev – or in a Russian withdrawal and thus a complete defeat for Moscow. Neither of the two will be able to make the opponents palatable to Beijing.
The meeting will primarily be about Russian-Chinese business interests – and about strengthening a geopolitical alliance that China apparently intends to stick to against all Western resistance. The timing of the visit is also remarkable in this context. Xi has just secured a third term as president and commander-in-chief of the Chinese armed forces at the National People’s Congress in Beijing. His first trip abroad in this capacity is now taking him to Moscow of all places.
However, the timing of another, parallel development should not be a coincidence either: Immediately after the announcement of Xi’s visit to Moscow, the International Criminal Court in The Hague issued an arrest warrant for Vladimir Putin. The Russian head of state is now an internationally wanted war criminal. This puts Xi’s visit in a completely different light. Like Russia and the USA, China does not formally recognize the authority of the Dutch court. Nevertheless, the arrest warrant sends a clear signal to Beijing: If Xi takes a seat next to his “friend” Putin in Moscow, he will be in the worst company, at least from the point of view of the western public.
I have been working in the news industry for over 6 years, first as a reporter and now as an editor. I have covered politics extensively, and my work has appeared in major newspapers and online news outlets around the world. In addition to my writing, I also contribute regularly to 24 Hours World.