Is Xi drifting away from Putin?

There’s been none of the wolf warriorism we’ve become used to from Chinese diplomats as President Xi met world leaders this week. While meeting presidents Biden, Macron and Australia’s PM, Xi was all smiles; the discussion focused on climate change and food security, as well as how to prevent tensions from spilling over into war. The one exception to Xi’s more charming image seems to have been his encounter with Canada’s leader Justin Trudeau, who received a dressing down for his government leaking contents of their bilateral the day before.

But this awkward clash was the exception. And on Russia, Xi seems to have said all the right things. According to a White House readout of Xi and Biden’s three-and-a-half hour meeting on Monday, both presidents agreed that ‘a nuclear war should never be fought and can never be won’.
Beijing remains one of Moscow’s few allies, and the US is clearly hoping for it to play a role in talking Putin down from the ledge of nuclear warfare, especially given Russia’s repeated defeats in Ukraine. With Putin absent from the G20, the Biden-Xi meeting had echoes of the cold war, where the two major powers of the world negotiated and discussed the fate of proxy conflicts across the globe, to make sure that they did not accidentally escalate.

Though that particular line was not included in the Chinese read out of the meeting from Monday, today, when Foreign Minister Wang Yi met his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov at Bali, the Chinese side emphasised it again.
Wang Yi was referring to this statement from the Russian side two weeks ago, a statement that may have been missed by many in the West, given our current state of concern over the extremes that Russia may go to. (Of course, ‘nuclear war’ doesn’t necessarily preclude some kind of unilateral strike over Ukraine).
That Xi did not meet Lavrov himself may be seen as a slight – but more likely it’s just that the President deemed the foreign minister too low ranking for him (it’s hard to imagine that Xi wouldn’t have shaken hands with Putin, had he been in Bali). Whatever the truth of today’s Sino-Russia meet-up, what’s clear is that Beijing does not want a nuclear war. While it has done little to mediate the situation in Ukraine this year, this kind of escalation is where Beijing’s red line lies.


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