As we all know, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping speak of their personal relations as that of ‘best friends.’ Over the years they have had 40 face to face meetings at which they celebrated various landmarks in the development of their countries and of interstate relations. At these meetings, they even celebrated birthdays together.
However, formal State Visits have been few and far between. The State Visit to Moscow of Chinese President Xi that ended this morning was the first of its kind in four years. It was awaited with great anticipation by observers around the world, because it came at a time of great international tension stemming from the Ukraine-Russia war.
In Washington, in London and in Berlin, there was particular interest to detect signs that China might be moving beyond its diplomatic and economic assistance to Russia in this war to the potentially game-changing delivery to Russia of military equipment. And what would the parties say about the 12 point peace plan that China had issued a few weeks earlier, on the anniversary of the outbreak of the war? Would Russia accept the notion of Chinese mediation now that Beijing had proven the effectiveness of its diplomatic corps by brokering the reestablishment of relations between the Islamic Republic of Iran and Saudi Arabia?
In my own comments on what might come out of the State Visit that I published on the eve of Xi’s arrival, I had also directed special attention to Putin’s possible acceptance of Chinese mediation and of their peace plan. That had, as I saw it, the potential for deepening fissures in the EU over continuing to arm Kiev.
Indeed, already on the first day of the State Visit, the Russian side indicated that the Chinese peace plan could serve as a basis for re-opening negotiations with Kiev. This one-sentence press release item of 20 February was expanded in the Joint Declaration issued at the close of Xi’s State Visit. Here we read the following:
Russia welcomes the readiness of China to play a positive role in finding a political-diplomatic settlement of the Ukrainian crisis and the constructive thoughts set out in the document compiled by the Chinese Side ‘On the position of China with respect to a political settlement of the Ukrainian crisis.’
The Parties note that for there to be a solution of the Ukrainian crisis it is necessary to respect the legitimate concern of all countries in the field of security and to prevent the formation of bloc confrontation, to put a halt to actions which can further inflame the conflict.
The Parties emphasize that responsible dialogue is the optimal way to reach a lasting settlement of the Ukrainian crisis, and the international community should support constructive efforts undertaken in this connection.
The Parties call upon everyone to put a halt to all measures which encourage escalation of tension and drawing out the fighting, to avoid further degradation of the crisis leading it to go out of control. The Parties come out against all unilateral sanctions that bypass the UN Security Council.
But more words do not mean greater clarity. For those of you unfamiliar with the “wooden language” of Soviet period documents, the foregoing is a good learner’s introduction.
What we can say is that there is nothing in the paragraphs quoted above to suggest the launching of a ‘peace offensive’ against Washington. The fact that it was placed not at the head of the Joint Declaration but is buried in the next to last, eighth section speaks volumes. Meanwhile, for its part, already before Xi’s plane landed in Moscow Washington had preemptively dismissed any possible role for Chinese mediators or for their peace plan. The U.S. denounced all talk of an immediate cease-fire as sanctifying Russian possession of conquered Ukrainian land.
My mention of ‘wooden language’ pertains not only to the issue of the Ukraine war but to the entire text of the Joint Declaration with which the State Visit ended. The document is very long and you need the skills of a veteran Kremlinologist to pick the raisins out of this cake, as the Germans like to say.
The reasons for both the length and the form over content nature of the Joint Declaration are clear from the opening. It makes reference to the Treaty on good-neighborliness, friendship and cooperation signed by China and Russia in 2001, which encompassed a vast array of topics in all imaginable spheres above and beyond the usual notions of collaboration in diplomatic, commercial and security relations. All of these different common ambitions are reconfirmed in the text of the Joint Declaration with generalities about good will and efforts of the Parties, about serving the interests of the respective states and peoples, but with almost no specific projects or targets.
Indeed, from start to finish, both Russia and China released to journalists covering the event very little concrete information about the lengthy one-on-one meetings of the two heads of state or about the sessions of the working group that met each day under their supervision and comprised a limited number of minister level officials who were different on each occasion.
Nonetheless, strange as it may seem 30 years after the disappearance of the Soviet Union, there are still Kremlinologists among us who roused themselves to find something worth reporting about the State Visit through application of their craft. Even mainstream media like The Financial Times rose to the challenge. Their journalists found and included in the headline of one daily report yesterday that China was “holding out” on construction of a new Russian gas pipeline, known as Power of Siberia 2. This long-discussed project would add 50 billion cubic meters of gas a year tapping into the Siberian and Yamal gas production centers that had till now been supplying Europe; they would now serve China from a new direction, across Mongolia into its Western regions.
Whereas outside analysts had expected the Chinese to conclude the deal already now so that construction could get underway without delay, we find the following in section 3 of the Joint Declaration:
The Parties will apply their efforts to advance work on studying and agreeing the project of building a new gas pipeline from Russia to China through the territory of Mongolia
The Financial Times suggests this vague language indicates that Chinese backing for the Russian economy is less keen than Moscow hoped. They view it strictly in the context of Russia’s supposed economic dependency on China in its role as ‘junior partner,’ the term we find in the heading of another article in FT from yesterday.
For my part, I also take the postponement of approval of Power of Siberia 2 to be important, but for another reason: what it says about China’s fear of possible U.S. interference with the flow of hydrocarbons to China from the Middle East. That is a subject I will address in a moment.
The only other item in the Joint Declaration that seems to have caught the attention of commentators in the West is the call in section 7 for all nuclear powers to keep their arms strictly within their own national frontiers. That, of course, would mean the withdrawal of U.S. nuclear devices from Western Europe and Turkey. It is as pugnacious a position from Russia as its demand issued in December 2022 that NATO withdraw to its frontiers of 1997, that is to say before it expanded into the former Warsaw Pact countries.
Application of Kremlinology arts to the State Visit has been used to greatest effect when trying to identify the subjects of the behind closed doors ministerial sessions. Absent any official information on what was discussed, not to mention agreed, commentators have issued their conjecture by looking at who was present at these meetings and who was not. This technique was applied last night by one of the panelists on the Vladimir Solovyov talk show as regards day two of the Visit. The working group had in its composition people from transport and from trade. The conclusion of the panelist was that they were discussing the new logistics, the new supply chains from Russia to China for hydrocarbons, grains and much else. There will have to be large-scale infrastructure investments from both sides if the level of trade is to rise greatly from its the185 billion dollars recorded in 2022.
This type of Kremlinology yielded much more interesting possibilities when the Russian military affairs analyst Andrei Martyanov applied it to day one of the Visit. He pointed out that the working group of the day included Russia’s highest official for military sales, which is exactly the opposite of what Western experts would have expected, given the supposed dependence of Russia on China to keep its war effort in Ukraine going as its own munitions supplies are depleted.
Nearly all experts on international affairs in the West take it for a given that the biggest military potential in the world outside the Collective West is in China. They look at China’s size in terms of population, GNP, military budget and feel confident that Russia, at one tenth the population, at a still lower ratio of GNP and with a military budget less than a quarter of China’s and they have no doubts about who is who.
However, as I have been saying for some time, the aforementioned indicators are an unreliable predictor of Hard Power, and clearly Martyanov is of the same mind. I refer readers to the video in which he sets out his argument that on day one of the Visit the Russian and Chinese working group were talking about possible procurement by China of Russia’s various hypersonic missiles, in particular those adapted to destroying aircraft carriers and other surface vessels. As most everyone knows, these weapons are unique in the world. And for several reasons easy to name, they could be of great use to China to keep the U.S. fleet at a distance, meaning 1500 km or more out to sea.
In his first speech following his election by the Party Congress to a new term, Xi Jinping said that the Chinese military must create a “Steel Wall” to secure the country against enemies. In my first attempt to interpret that expression, I saw it as a reference to the “Great Wall,” which was an unparalleled engineering feat of its time and which aimed to defend China against the barbarians from outside the territories of the Han population. I saw this “Steel Wall” as a protective perimeter in the South China Sea to keep out the United States and allied navies.
However, in the past few days I see another reference implied by “Steel Wall,” namely the “Steel Fence” of 1962 that Adlai Stevenson declared in the United Nations was being imposed by the United States to ensure that Soviet rockets and other arms were not delivered by ship to Cuba. Just as the Russian complaints over NATO’s possible installation of rockets in Ukraine is a direct reminder of 1962 with the roles of the key actors reversed, so in the Chinese case vis-à-vis Taiwan, we can see a similar reversal of roles with the USA here also playing the role of Khrushchev’s USSR in Cuba and China imposing a naval blockade on Taiwan to keep out U.S. weapons. To ensure that the USA would not attempt to break such a blockade, those Russian hypersonic missiles would be a very useful counter-threat.
With these risks for Chinese security in mind, I must bring up again the delay in agreement on the Power of Siberia 2 pipeline. That suggests to me that the Chinese leadership is not yet alarmed at possible U.S. sanctions that bite being imposed and does not anticipate a direct military confrontation in the near future.
As they say on Russian television, Time Will Tell.
© Gilbert Doctorow, 2023