Is China about to turn on Russia?

Is China about to turn on Russia? By Nathan Levine.

After managing a strained smile and handshake for the cameras, President Xi Jinping walked away from Vladimir Putin with a face like stone. By most accounts, the recent meeting in Uzbekistan between the two leaders, who once spoke of each other as “best friends” and “bosom buddies,” was frosty. …

Not what Putin promised:

China’s frustration with Russia is clearly growing. The conflict has left Beijing in an exceptionally awkward position. A short, sharp war that toppled the pro-Western Ukrainian government — i.e. what Putin appears to have originally expected — would undoubtedly have been a big win for China, severely undermining the unity and influence of the Western liberal order that it also seeks to overturn. It’s possible this was the bright future Xi was told to expect when, just before the war, Putin met him in February and the two leaders signed a joint statement declaring there were now “no limits” to the China-Russia partnership. Fast forward to today, however, and the protracted conflict, and the exposure of the Russian army’s simultaneous weakness and brutality, has turned into a serious headache for China.

Chinese react coolly:

Diplomatically, Beijing has attempted to straddle the fence on the war by supporting Russia rhetorically and morally even as it refrains from providing it with any of the material support Moscow has begged for with growing desperation. Russia has had to settle for shoddy, second-hand armaments from North Korea and Iran instead of the high-tech kit from China that it probably expected to receive. Even Washington has, almost grudgingly, admitted that China has so far complied with its sanctions on Russia. …

No one is happy: the West has reacted with moral outrage that China hasn’t openly denounced Russia, while the Russians doubtless privately seethe with a sense of betrayal, having discovered that “our Chinese friends are tough bargainers”, as Putin let slip.

Overall, the war is increasingly turning into a diplomatic disaster for Beijing, helping to drive perceptions of China to record lows around the world. In particular, it has shattered previously close ties with Europe. …

China is facing an exceptionally challenging economic outlook, including a worsening real-estate crisis, a debt bubble totalling at least 300% of GDP, an unprecedented level of capital flight, and a youth unemployment rate already over 20% — not to mention the damage inflicted by rolling Covid lockdowns. China simply cannot afford to lose additional trade and investment right now, especially from an economic partner as large as Europe. ….

Rumors of a coup in China to depose Xi were false:

Last weekend, wild rumours that a coup had deposed Xi swept the internet. Elite military units under the command of a 105-year-old politician had taken over Beijing and placed him under house arrest. Military convoys were on the move across China. Flights cancelled around the country were the result of mutinies or military manoeuvres, not the weather. One of Xi’s rivals was about to take charge; the whole regime was about to collapse.

All of this speculation was baseless, and Xi soon reappeared to pointedly lead all his top colleagues around a museum exhibit on “Forging Ahead in the New Era”.

But the fact that the rumours seemed plausible to so many speaks to a growing view, inside as well as outside China, that events and his own policies may have left Xi vulnerable — or even cost him the “Mandate of Heaven” that legitimises an Emperor’s rule. …

Putin has embarrassed and endangered Xi:

Xi’s economic mismanagement and strategic misstep of personally linking himself too closely to Putin have exposed him and his political faction to internal criticism in a manner that was almost unthinkable even two years ago. …

Xi’s patience with Moscow is clearly wearing thin. When Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu blithely declared on television last week that “we are at war not only with Ukraine and the Ukrainian army, but with the collective West”, faces in Beijing must have grown pale. This is not something China can afford to be prematurely dragged into right now. …

Russia’s flailing means he will face an increasingly stark choice: either continue to draw away from Russia and its mess, or pivot dramatically and unleash enough Chinese military assistance to make sure Russia can win decisively, setting up an epochal clash with the West. Fortunately, all signs currently point in the direction of the former.

If only Putin hadn’t invaded Ukraine. The second major clusterf**k this decade, after the West’s covid response.