What did China’s President Xi Jinping do on his 69th birthday? The birthday boy called up his “bosom buddy,” Vladimir Putin, to reassure the Russian leader that “bilateral relations have maintained a sound development momentum in the face of global turbulence and transformations.”
Xi pledging Moscow more support on “sovereignty and security” is tantamount to the Chinese leader disdainfully dismissing all earlier warnings from the West that China risked major reputational damage by not condemning the Kremlin. But what is more worrying for the leaders in the West is that Xi doubled down still further, pledging to deepen strategic coordination between the two countries.
Some in the global media have interpreted Putin and Xi’s latest phone call – their only one since the action in Ukraine started – as “subdued.” They compared it with the wolf warrior diplomacy-style statement, including the infamous line that China-Russia relations have “no limits,” issued in early February on the day the Winter Olympic Games kicked off in Beijing.
But Xi’s birthday call to Putin is highly significant when viewed in the immediate backdrop of reports from Beijing confirming the removal of Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng a day earlier.
Reports late last month began suggesting that Le had left China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The 59-year-old Le – the leading “Russia expert” in the foreign policy decision-making system in Beijing – was said to have been demoted to the National Radio and Television Administration, becoming the first political casualty as the war in Ukraine grinds on.
There was a broad consensus in global media circles that the sudden move to remove Le meant that he was being blamed for his inaccurate assessment of Russia’s war in Ukraine. Further, global media also claimed that, being the only experienced Russia hand at the top, Le was also being held responsible for pushing China too close to Russia. The assumption behind these theories is that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership was concerned that Le’s incorrect assessment – first about the likelihood of Russian military action, and second about the expected Russian success – had damaged China’s ties with the global economy.
In other words, in the opinion of the media and the leaders in the West, Le’s removal was a sign of Beijing softening its support to Moscow for the fear of “major reputational damage… in Europe.”
But Xi’s decision to chat with Putin on the former’s birthday, or more specifically the substance of the conversation, has once again proved how far removed the Western understanding is from the Chinese reality, especially when it comes to China’s foreign policy moves or its leader’s actions. By calling up Putin and assuring him of further development of economic, military, and defense ties between the two countries at a time when the Russian presence in Ukraine is not showing any sign of ending, Xi has not only totally ignored the Western warnings but he has also put to rest speculations that the image of China moving too close to Russia has been causing concern in Beijing.
During Wednesday’s call, Xi also reiterated what he had told U.S. President Joe Biden during the two leaders’ much-hyped telephone conversation in mid-March – his first call since the Russian invasion. As was reported, in response to Biden’s warning to refrain from aiding Russia, Xi is supposed to have said, “China has always independently assessed the situation in Ukraine, and is willing to push for a proper settlement of the Ukraine crisis.” As has been explained by an Indian observer, Xi’s stressing for “a proper settlement of the crisis” in Ukraine implied that the West has been distorting the China-Russia relationship in the context of the war.
A similar concern was reflected by some observers in the West. However, in the common Western interpretation, such concerns were indicative more of Beijing finding friendship with Moscow increasingly “inconvenient,” and not of a greater commitment, as Xi promised Putin in his birthday call. Some in the West even spoke of China already beginning to rue its “wrong bet” on Moscow. Moreover, as the war in Ukraine grinds on, British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said that Beijing increasingly views Russia as an “inconvenient friend.”
It is against this misconstrued projection of the China-Russia relationship in the West that Xi’s birthday call acquires a greater significance. In this context a proper understanding is required of what the Economist magazine recently argued: the outcome of the war in Ukraine “will determine China’s changed worldview.”
In essence, these and many more assessments in the West were based on the premise that 1) Chinese support for Russia has weakened in the face of Moscow’s military failures in the war; 2) in addition to the fact that China feared its trade and economy were likely to be affected, the leadership in Beijing must have become nervous on hearing Putin raise the possibility of using nuclear weapons; 3) if the idea was to prevent further expansion of NATO into the Russian security zone – this was Beijing’s main accusation against the West of provoking the war – the opposite has been achieved, i.e. Finland and Sweden are on the threshold of joining NATO; 4) China is buckling under the increased pressure (i.e. veiled threats) from the U.S. not to provide “substantial new aid to Russia”; 5) China seems to have been totally flatfooted and frustrated by the illogical and irrational scope of Putin’s ambitions.
All the factors mentioned above (and many more) contributed to the prevailing narrative of why Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng had to be “sacrificed.” However, with Xi’s June 15 phone call to Putin, we now know not only that internal political dynamics more likely led to the end of Le’s upward mobility in China’s foreign ministry hierarchy, but also that “the events in Ukraine have not dented” Xi’s basic commitment to the burgeoning Sino-Russian partnership.
Xi’s commitment to Putin, as is evident from the readouts issued by both Beijing and Moscow, is in fact a further continuation of what Le said after meeting with the Russian envoy in Beijing in April. “China is committed to strengthening strategic coordination with Russia,” Le had reassured Andrey Ivanovich Denisov, “regardless of how the international landscape may change.”
Finally, consider the timing of Xi’s phone call to Putin, which came on the eve of a European summit aimed at putting up a good show of solidarity with Ukraine and just two weeks before a NATO summit that isexpected to underscore the potential challenge from China to the North Atlantic alliance for the first time. Don’t forget, Japan and South Korea have both been invited for the first time to the June 29 NATO summit to be held in Madrid.
But more than its timing, Xi’s June 15 phone call must be analyzed in the nuanced context of what a commentary by the Council for Foreign Relations had previously noted. In the commentary, published within hours of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Ian Johnson and Kathy Huang noted that China not condemning nor endorsing the Russian war on Ukraine reflects the “strengthening of the Sino-Russian ties.”
At the same time, it is pertinent to point out that Xi’s rebooting of the Sino-Russian strategic partnership enjoys both the full backing of the CCP Political Bureau and the support of the country’s strategic affairs community. A recent Chinese commentary has observed: “In the new historical global strategy arising out of the crisis in Ukraine, getting rid of dependence on the West, breaking free from the [Western] hegemony, and strengthening the alliance with Russia will make China’s opening to the outside world of a higher quality.” Almost echoing what Le Yucheng told the Russian ambassador, the commentary further stated: “[Only] strengthening China-Russia strategic alliance will help China avoid” Western designs to isolate and contain China.
Lastly, instead of being cowed by the mounting Western pressure to refrain from offering economic and military aid to a struggling, crippled Moscow, Xi’s phone call to Putin has been received in China as a doubled-down pledge that China will support Russia on security. According to Cao Xin, a regular contributor to the Chinese edition of the Financial Times, the June 15 phone call has declared to the world the scope and key points of Sin0-Russian relations and Sino-Russian cooperation. In an ironic twist, some Chinese observers are claiming that on the question of the crisis in Ukraine, it is the West and not China that is undergoing a change in mentality.
To conclude, it is not the first time the current Chinese and Russian leaders – who between them share a strong distrust and dislike for the “democratic” West – have exchanged birthday greetings. In 2013, in his first year as his country’s top leader, Xi invited his Russian counterpart to cut the cake and join him to drink vodka on the latter’s 61st birthday during a conference in Indonesia. Putin too surprised Xi on the Chinese leader’s 66th birthday with ice cream, cake, and champagne during a summit meeting in Tajikistan.
However, the birthday call on June 15 was more than a social and cultural engagement. It was for all practical purposes a political call, with the communist leader from Beijing leaving no one in doubt that his friendship with Putin truly “knows no limits.”