How strong is Xi's alliance with Russia?

Vincent Kolo (China Labor Forum) 14 July 2023

After the brief Wagner mutiny in Russia on June 24, Xi Jinping's regime reiterated its support for Putin, calling Russia China's "comprehensive strategic partner for the new era". But the Wagner mutiny clearly shook the Xi regime. During the nearly 24 hours that Yevgeny Prigozhin's mercenaries marched on Moscow, the Chinese media was silent.

A year and a half after the biggest war in Europe since 1945, the Chinese regime is not turning a blind eye to the precarious handling of its "strongman" ally. It has watched Russia pay an increasingly high political price for its war in Ukraine. But it is clear that Xi also has no choice but to insist on reaffirming the "partnership" between the two countries. The Chinese dictator has invested heavily in this alliance, so he will not give up easily. Although Russia is obviously at a disadvantage, it is the only military and nuclear power among China's allies, and it is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council with veto power. A series of alliances of US imperialism are now reactivated by Putin's war; and China needs as many allies as possible in the contest with US imperialism, the military power that still dominates the world.

False signal
Therefore, the Sino-Russian axis is an important part of the new Cold War international pattern. It is a decisive component of the Chinese regime's military-economic containment strategy against the United States. However, the importance of an alliance with Russia is sometimes underestimated, not least because the Xi Jinping regime deliberately uses disinformation as part of its diplomatic tools. Of course, China's diplomatic tactics are not unique—all bourgeois governments use them to conceal their real goals.

The “cooperation without limits” partnership between Xi Jinping and Putin is not, nor could it be, a formal military alliance. This is not in line with the usual style of the CCP. However, this does not mean that there are no military factors in this alliance. An important consideration for the Xi Jinping regime is Russia's possible role in a future war across the Taiwan Strait.

One of the most important strategic benefits of the close Sino-Russian relationship is the security of the 4,200-kilometer border between China and Russia in northern China, years before the announcement of an "unlimited" partnership between China and Russia in February 2022. This has allowed China to shift its focus to the south, particularly building and modernizing its navy—now the largest in the world—to counter U.S.-led military buildups in the South and Taiwan Straits, and to deter India and Vietnam (both of which are backed by the U.S.) over border and maritime disputes. In exchange, Russia was able to invest the vast majority of its military resources in Ukraine.

Pro-Russian propaganda
The Chinese regime’s so-called peaceful solution to the war in Ukraine (the CCP doesn’t even call it a war) is a good example of the CCP’s art of ambiguity. Does China's peace proposal and the dispatch of its "peace envoy" Li Hui to Kiev and other European capitals signal a shift in Xi Jinping's regime, or does a disagreement with Putin undermine the alliance? the answer is negative. This just goes to show that the Chinese regime has the ability to confuse people.

Mr. Wu, a Chinese supporter of the ISA, made the following comment: "The foreign ministry always claims that it is on the side of justice and peace, actively persuading peace, and so on. This kind of non-inclined statement at first glance is sometimes very confusing, and even makes people mistakenly think that CP is trying to withdraw itself from the Sino-Russian alliance; but compared with diplomatic rhetoric, the internal propaganda of the domestic media better expresses CP's position in the conflict."

Mr. Wu explained that on the issue of war, the media controlled by the Chinese state apparatus completely sided with Russia. They are repeating what both Chinese and Russian regimes are preaching: that NATO and the U.S. security threats to Russia led to the war, and that Ukraine is a puppet of the West, allied with the West against Russia. He also cited a commentary by China's main state-run Xinhua News Agency on Wagner's mercenary mutiny. The wording of this comment rarely spreads abroad, because the Chinese regime wants the outside world to see a different image.

The official comment stated: "This incident proves Putin's ability to control the situation... The enemy is currently in a difficult period when Russia is still fighting the entire West. No matter how reasonable Prigozhin's appeal is, it is also an untimely big mistake... A high degree of consensus among all parties in Russia-the current response to Western provocations is the main direction of attack."

Therefore, even if the CCP tries to explain this embarrassing crisis, it also emphasizes that it is fundamental to oppose "Western provocation". The Xi Jinping regime can repeat Putin's propaganda, because it coincides with its own Cold War agenda against the US-led camp, and it can also strengthen the Cold War agenda. The CCP needs to mobilize the majority of Chinese public opinion to support Xi Jinping's political line, which is to get rid of the economic dependence on the United States and Western capitalism. This is the Chinese version of "de-risking". Convinced that the Cold War will only escalate (he is right in this), the Xi regime seeks to make the Chinese economy "immune" to sanctions. The ongoing trade, financial and technological restrictions on China, which have nothing to do with the Ukraine war, have also seriously damaged the Chinese economy. In the future, open military confrontation between China and the United States cannot be ruled out. This is the catastrophic logic of capitalism and imperialism.

Catastrophic reversal
Since the first day of the war, China's domestic media coverage has been unwavering in its pro-Russian and pro-Putin stance. China's pro-Russian stance seems implausible at first glance, given that Russia has suffered a series of disastrous military setbacks, which played into the hands of Chinese and American imperialists. But Beijing's "unreasonable" has a method. The purpose of the CCP is to use the conflict between Russia and Western imperialism to prepare for its own upcoming conflict.

"The Chinese media is almost the mouthpiece of the Russian media." Mr. Lin, another ISA comrade in China, explained: "All news about the war comes from the Russian satellite network (Sputnik) and Russia Today (RT)...China's Internet censorship almost only targets Ukrainian information, conniving at the pro-Russian media to create rumors."

Mr Lin pointed to the fact that Chinese state media had only one reporter in the war zone, underscoring China's utter reliance on Russian media coverage. He told us: "The only Chinese reporter on the front line of Russia and Ukraine is Lu Yuguang of Phoenix Satellite TV. Last year, this person also participated in the falsification. He edited the video of foreign car repair enthusiasts into a video of "Haimas being destroyed by the Russian army" to create fake news." From this, we can clearly see that the image of the Chinese regime's internal and external propaganda is completely different, and its position is completely biased towards Russia. On the issue of the Ukraine war, the Xi regime, like other imperialist governments, has resorted to mystification to disguise its true goals and defend its interests more effectively.

Of course, a socialist analysis cannot be based on the rhetoric of a bourgeois government, much less on speculative reports in the media, or on rumors of a possible split between allies. We must examine the actual international balance of power, and the strategic interests of the ruling classes in each case. Only in this way can we correctly position ourselves, broaden our horizons, and warn of the dangers ahead.

Xi Jinping's visit to Moscow
Some commentators misjudged Xi Jinping's visit to Moscow in March this year, mainly seeing signs of discontent with Putin in China at the time, and drawing the conclusion that the Sino-Russian alliance was under pressure. Relations between China and Russia may become tense, but this will not change the basic trend of events. Xi Jinping's regime is not happy with Putin's army's disastrous performance in the war. In fact, the performance of the Russian army surprised Beijing, because Beijing has always overestimated Russia's military strength. This even caused the CCP to re-evaluate some of its previous calculations for "army reunification" of Taiwan. Of course, Xi Jinping has definitely not given up on this long-term goal.

However, due to the epidemic, Xi Jinping's visit to Moscow this year became his first foreign visit since 2020. He consciously sent a signal that Xi Jinping regards Putin as more important than other governments (Xi has met 40 times), showing the importance of the alliance between the two countries. Faced with mounting pressure from the West, Xi used his trip to Moscow to reiterate China's support for Putin's regime. This support covers a wide range of areas, but it is not direct military support or open confrontation with Western sanctions, which may otherwise invite economic sanctions against China.

The war and the US-led sanctions against Russia have provided an unexpected impetus to China's economic development. In the first five months of 2023, the bilateral trade volume between China and Russia increased by 40.7% year-on-year. Among them, China's exports to Russia increased by 75.6%. For Putin's regime, China has become his lifeline, which partly explains why the predicted total collapse of the Russian economy did not happen. In 2022, Russia's GDP will fall by 2.1%, instead of the 12% recession predicted by the World Bank.

In the same period (January to May 2023), Sino-US trade shrank by 12.3%, and China's trade with Taiwan shrank by more than 25%. This economic shift is not insignificant, nor is China's discounted access to Russian gas, as it reduces China's reliance on shipping, which could be blocked in the event of a military conflict. But for Xi Jinping's regime, the strategic alliance with Moscow goes beyond economics. The economic, political, and military pressure exerted by the US-led camp is driving the Sino-Russian alliance.

Defend Putin
This means that as long as the two regimes remain in power, the alliance between them is virtually unbreakable. The CCP has concluded that Washington now seeks to achieve regime change in China as a key Cold War goal. Therefore, the value of Russia to the CCP lies in undermining the US-led Cold War strategy through a "united front". Of course, such a united front can collapse under the influence of major events, military defeats, and revolutions, just like the united fronts in the West. But it's unlikely to be overwhelmed by minor setbacks.

Xi Jinping clearly has the upper hand in this relationship, while Putin and Russia are weakened by the protracted war in Ukraine. Of course, China is also exploiting this imbalance to its own advantage, such as cannibalizing Russia's traditional dominance in Central Asia to grab more economic benefits. But at the same time, Xi Jinping has to do his best economically and diplomatically to protect the Putin regime, even if there is no direct military support at this stage.

Ghosts of history
The Wagner mutiny came as a shock to Xi’s regime, especially given its certain historical parallels with the end of Gorbachev’s rule in 1991 and the collapse of the Soviet Union. We must remember that at the beginning of his administration, Xi Jinping insisted that all CCP officials study the history of the collapse of the Soviet Union and strengthen their determination to defend the dictatorship. Using his characteristic patriarchal language, Xi Jinping blamed the collapse of the Soviet Union on "no one is a man", so as to prevent events similar to the collapse of the Soviet Union from happening in China.

Even after the Wagner crisis further weakened Putin's power, the Chinese government announced its continued support for Putin for the reason, as one commentator put it: "For Xi Jinping, even a greatly weakened Putin is better than no Putin at all."

Regarding the collapse of the Putin regime and its replacement by a regime hostile to China, China will do whatever it takes to prevent this nightmare from coming true. Although this is unlikely to happen at this stage, it would upset the current international balance of power and be extremely detrimental to China. Paradoxically, this also means that although Putin is obviously in a weak position after the Wagner incident, Xi Jinping is more worried about "what will happen next", which in turn gives Putin an extra bargaining chip when facing Xi Jinping.

The "unlimited" partnership between China and Putin was announced on February 4, 2022, during the Winter Olympics in Beijing. As we said at the time, it is unlikely that Xi Jinping was ignorant of Putin's plans to invade Ukraine, the question is simply how much he knew. But the "no-caps" partnership and its timing undoubtedly helped Putin launch his invasion. Those who claim that the Chinese regime is completely out of it are obviously ridiculous. As we reported, at the time this created divisions within the CCP. Anti-Xi factions within the CCP regime (weakened and later purged) were surprised by Xi Jinping's public restructuring of the alliance with Russia (although this was nothing new), which they saw as a provocation to the United States and Europe. They believe that this is just a new goal set by many "Wolf Warriors" for their own self-interest, but China needs to be more cautious under the severe economic situation.

Even as Russia's setback in Ukraine proved a major miscalculation of Xi Jinping, he still insisted on going his own way. This is because he thinks he has no choice now. Abandoning the alliance with Russia would not only not strengthen but decisively weaken his regime, while not significantly reducing the conflict with the United States would have the opposite effect.

Wolf out of the cage
But at the 20th Communist Party Congress last October, Mr. Xi further consolidated his grip on the country. He has since ditched his aggressive "wolf warrior" rhetoric and instead rephrased his foreign policy in more skilful, less nationalist rhetoric. As we explained, this does not represent a strategic change, but only a tactical one. We have compared the similarities and differences between the escalation of US imperialism under the Biden administration and the chaotic and counterproductive fist-wielding of the Trump administration. Fundamentally speaking, Biden just continued and developed the anti-China strategy of the Trump era. The same is true for Xi Jinping in the post-"Wolf Warrior" era.

Beijing's so-called 12-point peace plan for Ukraine is an example of this tactical shift. It is no coincidence that the plan was proposed on February 24 this year, the one-year anniversary of Putin's invasion of Ukraine. With this phony "plan" Xi Jinping was able to travel to Moscow to reaffirm his strategic alliance with Russia, all the while making hype in front of governments and political commentators. Some see the peace proposal as a sign that China is distancing itself from Putin and wants an end to the conflict, possibly even putting pressure on Putin to make territorial concessions. but it is not the truth.

Xi Jinping's regime wants above all to avoid a total defeat for Russia, which could jeopardize the Sino-Russian alliance and the survival of the pro-China regime. The so-called peace plan repeated the typical Chinese rhetoric about respecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries, but did not express support for Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity. Nowhere in the document does it call on Russia to withdraw its troops, or even use the word "invasion". The title of the document is "China's Position on a Political Solution to the Ukraine Crisis" -- and even in the title, it's the Kremlin's words.

China's position is to freeze the conflict with a ceasefire, meaning Russia's territorial gains will remain intact. The document further protests the West's "unilateral sanctions" and "Cold War mentality" - two key issues for the CCP. The document proposes that China will provide assistance for Ukraine's post-war reconstruction, but in fact it hopes to win contracts for Chinese construction companies.

Is China's plan feasible? The Xi Jinping regime has not deluded itself into believing that this "peace plan" will be adopted in any significant way. Its purpose is to fish in troubled waters, to create a diplomatic smokescreen, to enable the Chinese government to protect its alliance with Putin, to try to prevent Russia from suffering a fiasco, and to provide it with a tool to deflect pressure from European and other governments. So far, this hasn't had any real success.

It cannot be completely ruled out (but the chances are low) that if the war in Ukraine is protracted, the Western camp may approach the Chinese regime in the hope that they will join in the negotiations and use China's good relations with Moscow to strike a deal.

This is not a real solution, because the current crisis of capitalism is inherently intractable, and any "peace" imposed by external forces on this basis is very fragile. Beijing's idea is that, on the premise that Ukraine does not join NATO (this is Russia's condition), Beijing can guarantee the future security of Ukraine together with the European powers. But this is impossible. US imperialism is the decisive force on the Ukrainian side. It will not simply stand by and watch Beijing greatly strengthen its position in Europe.

Unpacified europe
The widely reported phone call between Xi Jinping and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in April did not represent a change of policy in China. The first contact between the leaders of the two countries since the start of the war came more than a month after Xi met Putin in Moscow. Earlier, China's ambassador to France, Lu Shaye - a tough "Wolf Warrior" - sparked a new round of diplomatic crisis between China and the European Union when he said in a television interview that former Soviet states such as Ukraine and the Baltic States did not have "effective international legal status".

The Chinese government did not recall Lu Shaye, not even reprimand him. This incident is equivalent to the US government deliberately sending out mixed signals, causing Biden to repeatedly (four times) "slip" that the US will intervene militarily in any conflict between China and Taiwan.

Chinese Premier Li Qiang has just returned from a trip to Europe as part of a Chinese government charm offensive aimed at undermining the cohesion of the European bloc and coaxing increasingly wary European capitalists back to China. On the last day of Li Qiang's visit, the European Commission released its annual strategic report, emphasizing the need to reduce its "strategic dependence" on China, which shows that this visit was not a huge success. A few days later, the Chinese government canceled at the last minute a planned visit by Josep Borrell, the European Commission's foreign affairs representative. While no reason was given for the refusal, it was likely in retaliation for the Dutch government's decision a few days ago to further tighten the ban on sales of semiconductor manufacturing equipment to China, at the behest of Washington.

In a further setback for China, the German government also eventually joined the US in banning Chinese companies Huawei and ZTE from the country's 5G network. Italy's far-right Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has threatened to withdraw from China's Belt and Road Initiative. In 2019, Italy was the only G7 country to join the "One Belt, One Road" initiative. Such a change is a major diplomatic coup for the Xi Jinping regime. Today, however, is not what it used to be, with European governments continuing to strengthen ties with the US and NATO. That doesn't mean they have exactly the same interests, but just like the Sino-Russian bloc, the ruling class thinks they have no choice.

The new cold war is a manifestation of the bankruptcy of global capitalism. Neither of the two imperialist blocs offered any way out. The logic of this conflict is that escalation, more militarism, nationalism, state repression, and a fragmented global economy greatly exacerbate class conflicts. Both groups are like pawns crossing the river, heading for deepening economic and political turmoil. The task of the socialists is to expose the imperialist roles of both sides and to help achieve a political reboot of the labor movement by building a strong international socialist alternative.


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