China calls the ‘shots’ as Russia fires blanks

President Putin’s stark admission highlights President Xi’s leading role in Beijing’s alliance with Moscow

They are still “best” buddies. But it is becoming increasingly obvious that President Xi Jinping is “calling the shots.”

Even Russian President Vladimir Putin admitted as much when the authoritarian pin-up boys held their tête-a-tête in Uzbekistan this week.

His unprovoked war in Ukraine has highlighted an aging Russian military machine that is literally falling apart after a lightning Kyiv-orchestrated offensive in the past 10 days. The specter of defeat can not be ruled out as the eight-month conflict drags on.

Against this backdrop, Putin clenched his teeth and revealed his vulnerability to Comrade Xi and the rest of the world on television, confessing he understood “China’s concerns.”

He also thanked Beijing’s “balanced” position at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in the Uzbek city of Samarkand.

“Conclusion. Putin looks desperate. Xi looks like he is calling the shots. The whole relationship is rapidly becoming very, very lop-sided,” Richard McGregor, of the Lowy Institute, a Sydney-based think tank, tweeted.

The odd couple:

  • Close ties that bind Xi and Putin are built around distrust of the democratic rules-based order.
  • They also include fears of NATO expansion and, above all else, the United States.
  • Yet their union revolves around China’s economic clout and growing military power.
  • Still, Beijing relies on Moscow’s energy exports to keep its manufacturing juggernaut on the road.

Between the lines: “China will not allow Russia to [suffer] a crushing defeat in the war with Ukraine,” Shih Chien-Yu, of Taiwan’s Institute for National Defence and Security Research, told the Financial Review.

We’ve made clear our concerns about the depth of China’s alignment and ties with Russia.

Karine Jean-Pierre, White House press secretary

Delve deeper: If that happened, it would boost the Western alliance of the US, the European Union, and other key partners such as Australia and the United Kingdom. It could also see NATO expand eastwards, Shih pointed out.

Limited action: “However, China cannot fully support Russia. On the one hand, China’s military strength is insufficient, and on the other hand, [Beijing] probably intends to mend relations with the West after [the Communist Party’s 20th National Congress in October],” Shih said, referring to the expected coronation next month of Xi’s third term in office. 

View from Beijing: “In the face of changes in the world, times, and history, China is willing to work with Russia to reflect the responsibility of a major country, play a leading role and inject stability into a troubled and interconnected world,” President Xi said as reported by Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency.

Washington’s response: “We’ve made clear our concerns about the depth of China’s alignment and ties with Russia. [This] is an example of that alignment,” White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre stressed.

Big picture: The dynamics of the partnership are changing rapidly as Beijing flexes its muscles around Taiwan and the South China Sea. Joint Chinese and Russian naval drills have also taken place in the Pacific. Economically, China dwarfs its ally.

Political virus: “It is unlikely that China-Russia relations will go into rift or confrontation as promoted by the US and the West. China and Russia have united to resist the political virus of the US and the West while opposing hegemonism,” China’s state-run Global Times stated in an editorial on Friday.

China Factor comment: It is not as simple as that. Beijing’s threats against Taiwan and Moscow’s illegal war in Ukraine have “united” the Western alliance along with its Asian partners. In turn, Xi and Putin have come under geopolitical and economic pressure. This is a dangerous time for the odd couple.