October 1, 2022

After managing a strained smile and handshake for the cameras, President Xi Jinping walked away from Vladimir Putin with a face like stone. By most accounts, the recent meeting in Uzbekistan between the two leaders, who once spoke of each other as “best friends” and “bosom buddies,” was frosty. In a remarkable admission, Putin acknowledged that the Chinese leader had arrived with “questions and concerns” about the course of Russia’s war in Ukraine. Putin promised to better explain “our position on this issue, although we have talked about it before”.

Instead, Putin has decided to escalate further, announcing the mobilisation of 300,000 reservists in an effort to salvage Russia’s position as its forces flounder in the face of a sweeping Ukrainian counter-offensive. The mobilisation — along with accompanying threats to use nuclear weapons if Russian territory is endangered — is unlikely to have improved Xi’s mood. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin immediately called for a “ceasefire”. Foreign Minister Wang Yi later pressed for mediation and “every effort to strive for peace” in the conflict, while China’s ambassador to the UN Zhang Jun urged de-escalation and “a political settlement as soon as possible”.

China’s frustration with Russia is clearly growing. The conflict has left Beijing in an exceptionally awkward position. A short, sharp war that toppled the pro-Western Ukrainian government — i.e. what Putin appears to have originally expected — would undoubtedly have been a big win for China, severely undermining the unity and influence of the Western liberal order that it also seeks to overturn. It’s possible this was the bright future Xi was told to expect when, just before the war, Putin met him in February and the two leaders signed a joint statement declaring there were now “no limits” to the China-Russia partnership. Fast forward to today, however, and the protracted conflict, and the exposure of the Russian army’s simultaneous weakness and brutality, has turned into a serious headache for China.

Diplomatically, Beijing has attempted to straddle the fence on the war by supporting Russia rhetorically and morally even as it refrains from providing it with any of the material support Moscow has begged for with growing desperation. Russia has had to settle for shoddy, second-hand armaments from North Korea and Iran instead of the high-tech kit from China that it probably expected to receive. Even Washington has, almost grudgingly, admitted that China has so far complied with its sanctions on Russia.

The distinctly materialist Marxist-Leninist Chinese Communist Party (CCP) probably assumed its response would be appreciated around the world. Instead, no one is happy: the West has reacted with moral outrage that China hasn’t openly denounced Russia, while the Russians doubtless privately seethe with a sense of betrayal, having discovered that “our Chinese friends are tough bargainers”, as Putin let slip.

Overall, the war is increasingly turning into a diplomatic disaster for Beijing, helping to drive perceptions of China to record lows around the world. In particular, it has shattered previously close ties with Europe. The European Union is now preparing a series of measures targeting forced labour and “economic coercion” that are likely to limit the EU-China trade relationship. Even the once reliably friendly — some might say naïve — Germans are now rapidly rethinking their tight economic relationship with China. The newly elected Giorgia Meloni, soon-to-be prime minister of Europe’s third-largest economy, is also a ferocious China hawk who has pledged to reconsider Italian support for China’s Belt and Road Initiative and make Taiwan “an essential concern for Italy”. Meanwhile, once-enthusiastic countries in Eastern and Central Europe, led by the Baltic States, have begun to drop out of diplomatic and economic arrangements with Beijing. And with the advent of the war worsening existing concerns about Xi’s draconian zero-Covid policies, China has, as EU Chamber of Commerce president Jörg Wuttke recently pointed out, begun to rapidly lose “its allure as an investment destination” for European companies overall.

For Xi, this could not come at a worse time. China is facing an exceptionally challenging economic outlook, including a worsening real-estate crisis, a debt bubble totalling at least 300% of GDP, an unprecedented level of capital flight, and a youth unemployment rate already over 20% — not to mention the damage inflicted by rolling Covid lockdowns. China simply cannot afford to lose additional trade and investment right now, especially from an economic partner as large as Europe. Meanwhile, the broader inflationary and recessionary pressures unleashed by the war and Western energy sanctions threaten to badly limit the market for worldwide exports at the very moment they are most needed by China’s struggling economy.

Worst of all, China is only two weeks away from the 20th Party Congress, the defining event of the Chinese Communist Party’s cutthroat internal politics. Held only once every five years, this will be the moment the party’s next top leadership is selected — and the moment Xi makes a bid to remain in power beyond his allotted two terms in office, potentially setting himself up to rule for life. For ten years Xi has plotted and manoeuvred to make this opportunity possible, and all he needs now is some stability and the chance to maintain a cultivated image of steady, all-knowing competence. But Putin has helped dash Xi’s hope for an uneventful 2022, opening a chink in his carefully crafted armour.

Last weekend, wild rumours that a coup had deposed Xi swept the internet. Elite military units under the command of a 105-year-old politician had taken over Beijing and placed him under house arrest. Military convoys were on the move across China. Flights cancelled around the country were the result of mutinies or military manoeuvres, not the weather. One of Xi’s rivals was about to take charge; the whole regime was about to collapse.

All of this speculation was baseless, and Xi soon reappeared to pointedly lead all his top colleagues around a museum exhibit on “Forging Ahead in the New Era”. But the fact that the rumours seemed plausible to so many speaks to a growing view, inside as well as outside China, that events and his own policies may have left Xi vulnerable — or even cost him the “Mandate of Heaven” that legitimises an Emperor’s rule.

Even so, Xi remains in little danger of failing to secure a third term, let alone falling from power. The analysis of a new database of CCP power networks by the Asia Society Policy Institute demonstrates just how completely he and his loyalists have managed to seize and consolidate control over the three crucial levers of hard power in China’s Leninist system — what Mao Zedong famously described as “the gun” (the military), “the pen” (the propaganda organs), and “the knife” (the security and intelligence services).

Xi may be increasingly vulnerable in a different way, however. While his own position appears relatively unthreatened, the same can’t be said for his plan to pack the Politburo (the CCP’s top 25 leaders) with his protégés and factional allies, ensuring his path to lifetime rule and completing his personality cult. Xi’s economic mismanagement and strategic misstep of personally linking himself too closely to Putin have exposed him and his political faction to internal criticism in a manner that was almost unthinkable even two years ago. Xi had clearly hoped to replace his most obvious rival, Premier Li Keqiang (China’s second-ranked leader), with his personal protégé at the Party Congress, but this now looks substantially less probable. It is now more likely that Xi will have to compromise by accepting the elevation of Wang Yang, a senior leader connected to Li’s faction, to this position, as well as permitting the promotion of other reform-minded economic technocrats more sympathetic to Li throughout the system.

There has also been evidence in recent months that pro-Russia cadres within the diplomatic corps are beginning to be sidelined in favour of more pro-Western figures. The formerly high-flying and vocally pro-Russian Le Yucheng, who was once seen as a shoe-in as China’s next Foreign Minister, was suddenly demoted this summer and removed from the foreign affairs system entirely. Those who have emerged as the most likely replacements for the position, including Ma Zhouxu, Xie Feng, and Liu Jieyi, all have deep career ties to Europe, the United States, and international institutions such as the UN.

All this points to the possibility of an impending turn in Chinese policy. This doesn’t mean Xi is likely to throw Putin under the bus anytime soon — their high-profile “friendship” would make doing so disastrous for Xi’s credibility. But Xi’s patience with Moscow is clearly wearing thin. When Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu blithely declared on television last week that “we are at war not only with Ukraine and the Ukrainian army, but with the collective West”, faces in Beijing must have grown pale. This is not something China can afford to be prematurely dragged into right now.

Instead, regardless of whether he is under pressure from other political factions within China, Xi currently has an incentive to stabilise relations with Europe and the United States as much as is still feasible, and to seize on all available sources of growth for the Chinese economy, at least for the coming year. By contrast, he has little incentive to be generous with Moscow: now that Russia has been largely cut off from Western markets and suppliers, it needs China a lot more than China needs Russia.

It’s at least conceivable, then, that Xi could very well begin to privately pressure Putin to find a way out of the war and back to some semblance of global stability. Even if he doesn’t, unless Russia can turn things around in a hurry, Beijing is more likely to try to cut its losses and take measures to selectively distance itself from Moscow as it prepares to make the best of a world in which Russian power and influence are significantly reduced. We may have already seen an example of this two weeks ago when Xi — just ahead of his meeting with Putin — flew to Astana and pledged that China would “resolutely support Kazakhstan in the defence of its independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity”, effectively evicting and replacing Russia as the Central Asian state’s security guarantor and patron.

China did not sign up for the massive blunder Putin’s adventure in Ukraine has become, and Xi no doubt wishes the whole affair could simply go away. But Russia’s flailing means he will face an increasingly stark choice: either continue to draw away from Russia and its mess, or pivot dramatically and unleash enough Chinese military assistance to make sure Russia can win decisively, setting up an epochal clash with the West. Fortunately, all signs currently point in the direction of the former.