Chinese leader Xi Jinping finished up a high-profile, three-day visit to Moscow that could have consequences for the future direction of the war in Ukraine. But as I reported here, there are extensive layers to this summit that go far beyond Russia's invasion and will ripple into the future.
Finding Perspective: As with much of China's foreign policy, Xi is playing the long game with his Russia trip.
It's a very strong message to the world that despite everything that's happened in the last year, from Moscow invading its neighbor, the death and destruction that the war has brought, Russian President Vladimir Putin's nuclear saber-rattling, and an arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court issued for him -- that China will continue to deepen its already close ties with Moscow.
And that's because Beijing believes that it's in its interest to do so and that it needs Russia for a future where China will find itself in a tense and lasting competition -- or potentially more -- with the United States.
This summit was more about pomp and symbolism than substance. The joint statement for the visit outlined plans for future economic cooperation and plans to keep moving forward with the Power of Siberia 2 gas pipeline to China, although it stopped short of confirming it.
One of the key takeaways of the visit is that the power disparity between China and Russia -- which was already skewed in Beijing's favor -- is set to grow.
Russia's economy is roughly 1-10th of China's and Russia now finds itself increasingly dependent on China in every aspect. The yuan is set to become Russia's top foreign currency and Russia needs new buyers for its energy, which gives China major leverage.
Why It Matters: The big question is how does Xi's long-term bet on Putin play out over the war in Ukraine?
So far, China has been reluctant to help Russia on the battlefield, although there is a steady rise in the trade of so-called dual-use goods, which are commercial goods that can be repurposed in some capacity for military equipment. There's also trade data showing private sales of things like body armor and even some small firearms being bought from private Chinese companies and sent to Russia to help with the war effort.
As Dennis Wilder, a former director for China on the U.S. National Security Council, told me, China could covertly send artillery shells to Russia. Its stockpiles are plentiful, it has a shared border, or it could send things via a third-party.
Moreover, he added that "it's easy to remove factory markings from shells and replace them with another country's, and it would be very hard for [the United States] to prove that the Chinese did something like that."
Still, a more stepped-up form of Chinese support could escalate things on the battlefield and bring potential backlash for China, particularly with its two largest trading partners, the European Union and the United States.
Given its current economic circumstances at home, it doesn't look like Beijing can afford to be a rival to both.
Expert Corner: Beijing's Future In The Middle East
Readers asked: "Why does China want to supplant the United States in the Middle East? It seems like a risky move that could backfire on Beijing. What kind of future role is China actually carving out for itself there?"
To find out more, I asked Tuvia Gering, an expert on China's role in the Middle East at the Institute for National Security Studies in Israel:
"This is a trick question; who says China wants to replace the United States in the region? 'China doesn't want to become the world's police,' as retired Senior Colonel Zhou Bo told me two weeks ago. Despite recent developments, we have no reason to believe China's stance has shifted. Given our region's reputation as a graveyard for superpowers, the risk, as correctly identified in the second part of the question, is one that Chinese policymakers and scholars are well aware of.
"Furthermore, in the short term, I see little risk and more benefits for China. In the trilateral statement between Iran, Saudi Arabia, and China issued in Beijing, no Chinese commitments or assurances were made in the event that one of the conflicting parties violated the truce. If this happens, this allows China to take a step back and let the people of the region and the United States' forces deal with the consequences. Ironically, it would almost certainly blame America for being the 'root cause' of the theoretical conflict.
"In the long run, however, the recent move could signal the start of a trend of increasing Chinese diplomatic and security involvement in hotspot regions around the world. For one thing, as China's interests abroad expand, so does the need to protect them. For another, Xi Jinping's China is becoming more assertive in undermining Western hegemony and what it sees as the rules-based international order.
"If the U.S.-China relationship deteriorates further, China's 'spirit of struggle,' as Xi demands of the Chinese people, is likely to spread beyond the fault lines of the Taiwan Strait or the South China Sea. In this regard, the Middle East is emerging as a top contender."
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