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Why is Xi Jinping taking a cautious approach on the Ukraine war?

Russia’s victory will certainly embolden Vladimir Putin, who is currently playing the role of junior partner in Xi Jinping’s anti-West efforts, to reclaim the assertive role in the global power structure
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Putin seems to be desperate to find ways to break the shackles of diplomatic isolation that have gradually stifled the Russian economy to the stage of extreme suffocation despite continuous manipulation of the open and unregulated energy market through the price lever.

In his unusual year-end virtual meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping through video link on December 30, he appeared to be abnormally infatuated towards Xi Jinping and went much against his trademark arrogance to appease his Chinese counterpart. “We are expecting you, dear Mr Chairman, dear friend, we are expecting you next spring on a state visit to Moscow. This will demonstrate to the whole world the strength of Russian-Chinese ties on key issues,” is how Putin tried to exhibit his “extraordinary fondness” for Xi Jinping.

This is in stark contrast to the signature superciliousness of Putin, who is infamous for bullying the world leaders during the diplomatic interactions through his verbal and non-verbal communication. However, it appears the Ukraine war and its economic and political implications have compelled him to go the extra mile to lure Xi Jinping.

But Xi Jinping’s response was rather lukewarm – if not dreary – to such a conviviality of Putin. President Xi rather bluntly told his Russian counterpart that the road to peace talks on Ukraine would not be smooth and that China would continue to uphold its “objective and fair stance” on the issue.

Yes, Xi showed willingness for close coordination between Beijing and Moscow in international affairs and offered to facilitate Russia’s willingness to engage in negotiations over Ukraine, but he desisted from backing Putin in his Ukraine misadventure in clear terms.

Indubitably, China is perceived as the most crucial ally of Russia in the Ukraine war. However, during the last 10 months of the Ukraine war, we have witnessed many confusing and rather contradictory adjustments in China’s stance. Instead of voting in favour of Russia, China preferred to abstain from the UN Security Council and General Assembly resolutions in March last year. Similarly, with regard to sanctions on Russia, China has been showing reasonable compliance with the rest of the world.

Rumours are rife that China was aware of the impending Ukraine invasion in February 2022 because Russia waited for the culmination of the Beijing winter Olympics before sending troops across the border. From the very onset of the Ukraine invasion, China has been verbally pledging support to Russia in this matter. But recent events show that China is now slightly pulling back from this posture. Is there some change of heart? The answer is partly yes.

Frankly speaking, a Russian victory is what China does not want and expect. Russia’s victory will certainly embolden Vladimir Putin, who is currently playing the role of junior partner in Xi Jinping’s anti-West efforts, to reclaim the assertive role in the global power structure. In this case, Russia would eventually emerge as considerably stronger than it was before launching the intrusion, and such a transformation would lure Putin to think about converting Russia into a neo-Soviet Union.

A stronger Russian federation – and Putin- will certainly reduce the chances to cooperate with China and work as second lead. In that case, Putin would prefer to pursue his own high-octane power agenda and project Russia as an equal player – to the US and China - in a new tri-polar power setup, rather than keep posing as the ally of China.

Nonetheless, the recent virtual meeting between Putin and Xi reflects growing anxiety on both sides: Putin is certainly on the back-foot after series of military fiascos in Ukraine and wants to bolster his position by projecting “closeness” with Beijing, while Xi Jinping is also facing a tough time on the home front after abandoning his stringent zero Covid policy that has resulted in massive resurgence of the pandemic and an unprecedented wave of protests against his Covid policy.

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