Putin and Xi no longer have a partnership of equals

Vladimir Putin’s state visit to China this week was a show of strength. It was a chance for the Russian president to prove to the world that he has a powerful ally in his corner.

The Russian leader is widely regarded as a pariah after ordering the invasion of Ukraine. But to China’s President Xi Jinping, he is a key partner in seeking a new world order that is not led by the US.

And Mr Xi made his guest welcome. He rolled out the red carpet, the band played old Red Army songs, and cheering children greeted both leaders as they strolled through Tiananmen Square. There was even a brief hug for the cameras.

Russian and Chinese state media focused heavily on the camaraderie between the two leaders. But in truth, this is no longer a partnership of equals.

Mr Putin came to China cap in hand, eager for Beijing to continue trading with a heavily sanctioned and isolated Russia. His statements were filled with honeyed tones and flattering phrases.

He said that his family were learning Mandarin – this was particularly noteworthy because he very rarely talks about his children in public.

He declared that he and Mr Xi were “as close as brothers” and went on to praise China’s economy, saying it was “developing in leaps and bounds, at a fast pace”. This will likely play well with Beijing officials worried by a sluggish economy.

But Mr Xi himself did not echo the tone of these lofty compliments. Instead, his remarks were more perfunctory – even bland. Mr Putin, he said, was a “good friend and a good neighbour”. For China, the welcome ceremony and show of unity is in its interests, but lavishing its guest with praise is not.

The costly war in Ukraine, which shows no signs of ending, has changed their relationship, exposing the weaknesses in Russia’s army and its economy. Mr Xi will know that he is now in charge.

The war has isolated Russia. China’s ties with the West may be tense, but Beijing has not cut itself off from the world like Russia, nor does it want to.


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