Sino-Russian axis set to divide the world further

Russian President Vladimir Putin paid a State visit to the People’s Republic of China on May 16 and 17. Putin was received with full honours, but the visit was long on symbolism and somewhat short on substance. But from a geopolitical perspective, it is hard to imagine a more important visit by one head of State to another.

Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping during a meeting in Beijing.(via REUTERS)

It is worth recalling that before receiving President Putin on a State visit, China received a stream of western visitors who all conveyed the same message: China should exercise care in its dealings with Russia when it comes to military assistance, and it should use its good offices to persuade Russia to end the war in Ukraine. Thus, United States (US) secretary of state Antony Blinken in a visit in April to Beijing said that Russia would find it impossible to sustain the war in Ukraine without China’s support. He went on to add that if China did not address the issue, then the “US will”. The German chancellor Olaf Scholz was more wishy-washy but did ask China to use its influence with Russia to end the war. French President Emmanuel Macron accompanied by European Union (EU) Commission President Ursula von der Leyen also conveyed in blunt terms the EU’s red lines regarding China’s role in the conflict in Ukraine.

It is, therefore, important to ask whether Xi Jinping paid any heed at all to the above admonitions when he met Putin in China. The answer is a clear no. The only positive indication in the joint statement is an affirmation by China and Russia that they seek a political settlement as the way forward in Ukraine. But this is balanced out by a reference in the joint statement against the “bloc mentality” of the West. Indeed, both countries rail against the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and AUKUS. In fact, the joint statement specifically listed America’s missile defence systems, high-precision non-nuclear weapons and deployment of intermediate and short-range weapons in both Europe and the Pacific. As if that were not enough, Xi cocked a snook at the West by agreeing to undertake joint military drills with Russia. Russia, for its part, stated it was all for China’s peace plan for Ukraine. This 12-point plan, couched in vague generalities, did not receive any traction in the West when it was released last year.

In the area of trade and commerce, where the two countries are enjoying an unprecedented boom, the main challenge for both countries is how to “de-dollarise” their trade entirely. Already 90% of their trade happens in local currencies. It is the payment settlement system that they are trying to fix. Some progress may have been registered, but China has a systemic interest in this issue in view of contingencies arising from its potential actions related to Taiwan. A point worth noting is that while some Chinese companies providing military technologies such as chips to Russia have been sanctioned, so far Chinese banks have not been cut off from the global financial system such as SWIFT. If this were to happen, it would hurt China. This explains China’s relative caution when it comes to trading with Russia.

Both countries strongly defended the UN system along with principles of justice and a democratic world order reflecting the multipolar realities founded in international law. This is to implicitly reject the “rules-based international order” that the US and its allies seek. Conversely, China would be loath to reform the UN Security Council, particularly if that meant admitting Japan and India.

All this is not to suggest that everything is hunky dory between the two countries. It was interesting to note the absence of “no-limit” in describing their partnership in an otherwise verbose joint statement. More significantly, there was no agreement on the “power of Siberia 2” pipeline, which is of enormous interest to Russia. Indeed, GAZPROM’s chief executive was not part of Putin’s delegation to China and was separately undertaking a visit to Iran at the same time.

It is also clear that Putin is the “demandeur” in the relationship and needs China much more than the other way around. Xi would not wish Putin to lose the war, having decided early on to back him. But the present stalemate in Ukraine is no bad thing for Xi since it keeps Europe and the US bogged down in Europe and takes the focus away from China. So, China will keep making appropriate noises (along with Russia) for a political settlement in Ukraine, without really doing much about it. There is absolutely no evidence to suggest that China weighed in with Russia to put an early end to the war in Ukraine.

So, where does all this leave the world order in general and India, in particular. It is clear that the Sino-Russian axis is here to stay, and this will fragment the world order even more than it has done so far. A declining US, a divided EU, a turbulent West Asia, a resentful Russia and a chafing China are what India is up against as it seeks to rise and make a place for itself under the sun. This will require all the diplomatic dexterity and agility that India can muster.

Mohan Kumar is a former Indian Ambassador to France and currently dean/professor at OP Jindal Global University. The views expressed are personal

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