When Xi Jinping ascended to the pinnacle of Chinese power a decade ago, he saw Vladimir Putin as a strong leader who shared his hostility to the Western-dominated international system. They bonded over mutual paranoia about threats to their rule and exchanged best practices to impose control at home and make the world more accommodating of their authoritarian impulses. Mr Xi referred to Mr Putin as his “best, most intimate friend”.
After the Wagner affair, Mr. Xi’s big bet on the Russian leader does not look so safe.
The disastrous Russian military effort, culminating in last month’s aborted coup by the Wagner group’s paramilitary chief, Yevgeny Prigozhin, has exposed Mr. Putin’s Russia for what it is: a weakened, unpredictable nuclear state on China’s border, with a wounded leader whose long-term hold on power is not assured.
Mr. Xi cannot afford to abandon Mr. Putin entirely. He invested too much in the relationship, and Russia remains useful to China. But the bromance that has caused so much concern in the West has probably peaked.
If Mr. Xi is to achieve his strategic goal of surpassing American strength around the world, he will need to rebalance his foreign policy to account for Mr. Putin’s vulnerabilities. That may mean stronger Chinese support for ending a war that has so severely missed the Russian leader and perhaps a less confrontational Chinese approach to the United States and Taiwan.
There are signs that the Xi-Putin bonhomie may already be cooling. Beijing offered only a a muted response to the Wagner episode, calling it an “internal matter”, but alarm suggestions over the failed rebellion appeared in Chinese state media. Mr. Xi would not benefit by giving a blank check of support to Mr. Putin now. Doing so could invite domestic questions about Mr. Xi’s foreign policy judgment, which could only worsen if Mr. Putin suffers further setbacks.
China may be forced to adjust its stance on the Ukraine war. So far, during half-hearted calls for peace, Beijing has lent Moscow crucial diplomatic cover by presenting the war as justified to prevent NATO expansion or as provoked by the West. Beijing has also provided Moscow with an economic lifeline, offsetting Western sanctions with a significant expansion in Sino-Russian trade.
Although there have long been signs that Chinese leaders do not fully support Mr. Putin’s war, the conflict initially offered China hope that it would divert America’s focus away from Asia, where Beijing has sought to expand its dominance. That didn’t happen. Instead, Washington and its Asian allies have established a stronger military presence along China’s periphery since the start of the Ukraine war and are more united today in limiting China’s access to critical technologies.
Mr. Putin marches to his own tune. But China is now aware that a protracted war in Ukraine could further threaten its Russian partner and compromise its own foreign policy agenda. It has a motive to go beyond vague principles of the war and exercise its unique leverage over Moscow to urge a cessation of hostilities.
One key reason for this is Europe, where China’s image has been battered by its support for Russia. European trade sentiment toward China has soured, foreign direct investment has slowed, and transatlantic coordination on China has strengthened.
Mr Xi is determined to scale back US efforts to contain Beijing. An adverse Europe will make that difficult. Russia’s isolation is putting pressure on China to seek better relations with Europe to prevent its alignment with the US against China. One of the best ways for China to achieve this would be to reposition itself more strongly as a peacemaker in a conflict on Europe’s doorstep.
The problems in Russia also complicate Mr. Xi’s calculations regarding Taiwan. The Ukrainian war made two things clear: Pure military strength does not ensure battlefield success; and anything less than victory can invite leadership challenges. In that light, starting a war in the Taiwan Strait through increasingly belligerent actions could be disastrous for the Chinese leader.
The self-ruled island will hold a presidential election in January to choose a successor to Tsai Ing-wen, who has angered Beijing by cultivating closer ties with the United States. China has a a range of tools that it is suspected of having previously used against Taiwan to apply economic pressure or sow disinformation in support of candidates who prioritize improved relations with Beijing.
But aggressive Chinese rhetoric and threatening military exercises around Taiwan could undermine that goal by boosting candidates who oppose accommodation with China, not to mention provoking stronger and more visible American and international support for Taiwan. For Mr. Xi, the sweet spot will be appearing strong and determined, not triggering an escalating spiral.
Given these changed dynamics, leaders in Beijing probably also now realize that they need to lower the temperature in relations with the United States. The deep chill cast over Sino-US relations by the spy balloon incident in February has recently shown signs of thawing, with last month’s trip to Beijing by Secretary of State Antony Blinken – which included an audience with Mr Xi – and this week’s visit by Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen.
The Chinese president still needs his “close friend”. Russia remains the only other country in the world with the resources and motivation to cooperate with China to dilute the role of human rights and democratic governance in the international system. Permanent relations also ensure stability along its long border and keep China supplied with discounted Russian energy, as well as imports of food and military equipment. Both sides can expect to maintain the appearance of business as usual.
But Mr. Xi has little to gain from duplicating Mr. Putin, whose problems do not help China’s grand plans.
Many unresolved questions about the impact of Mr. Putin’s weakening hold on Russia remain. How well Mr. Xi can navigate the aftermath, with his partner now diminished, is one of them.
Ryan Hass (@ryanl_hass) is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and former China director at the National Security Council under President Obama. He is the author of “Stronger: Adapting America’s China Strategy in an Age of Competitive Interdependence.”
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