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Xi Jinping’s coming checkmate of Putin

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Ukraine has Russian President Vladimir Putin’s armed forces on the run and has recaptured land the size of the state of Maine in a matter of days. But a more serious setback is the public distancing of Russia by his so-called “no limits” partner, Chinese President Xi Jinping. It seems there are limits, and Xi articulated these before and after a meeting with Putin in Uzbekistan. Beijing is distancing itself from Moscow as its war against Ukraine falters.

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Putin acknowledged that Xi raised “concerns” about his war against Ukraine. He added that the Kremlin would clarify its position on Ukraine, without explaining further. “We understand your questions and your concerns,” he said in remarks broadcast on Russian state television from the meeting, which took place at a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Uzbekistan.

The day before the two met, Xi warned Putin against meddling in Kazakhstan. This was significant because the Kazakhs have been in Putin’s crosshairs since their leader openly criticized the war in Ukraine, then announced that Kazakh oil exports would be diverted to help Europe. Russians blocked the exports, then some hinted it may be invaded too.

Xi pledged to protect the country in a private meeting with leaders that was leaked. “We [China] will resolutely support Kazakhstan in the defense of its independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity,” he said. This was clearly a pre-emptive rebuke aimed at Putin’s imperialism designed to distance China from Russia as its invasion of Ukraine falters.

China has never endorsed the war against Ukraine. The 5,300-word Putin-Xi “no limits” partnership agreement made public on Feb. 4 made no mention of an invasion. Since then, China has kept its distance and stickhandled through the fallout without becoming a pariah like Russia.

This has been accomplished with duplicitous diplomacy. Beijing refuses to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, or to call it a war, but it also has not abrogated Western sanctions against Russia or provided any military aid. China’s agenda aims to keep its trading relationships intact with its biggest customers, Europe and America, but also to cop cheap energy from its authoritarian pal Russia.

The partnership has been uneasy for years. China vies with Russia for hegemony over Central Asia, with its vast resources and growing markets serving a population of 72 million. Beijing has already outsmarted Moscow by spending billions to build railways, highways and pipelines through Kazakhstan and other Central Asian nations to bypass Russia completely. Called the Middle Corridor, these infrastructure projects now link China directly to Europe and the Middle East as well as to the resources and economies of the Turkic world. Besides being a “sugar daddy” for the region, China benefits from the residual hatred in Central Asia for its former masters in Moscow.

The Europeans decoupling, and China’s disassociation, from Russia began even before Xi’s no-nonsense Kazakh comment. For starters, the Chinese leader landed another symbolic blow against Russia last week by refusing to attend Putin’s recent conference in Vladivostok and suggesting they meet instead in Uzbekistan, on the sidelines. “It indicates that Beijing carefully calibrates its level of public support for Moscow,” commented a wry observer.

They met as expected, posed for photos and made a predictable announcement about energy trade and economic cooperation. The reality is that massive energy trade projects were ballyhooed years ago, and back in February, but won’t come to fruition for years, if ever, given sanctions.

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There are no oil or gas pipelines linking Russia to China — a lapse that should have prevented Putin from invading Ukraine and blackmailing Europe. But he simply couldn’t help himself. Now Europe decouples from its dependency on Russian oil and gas and signs up other sources, including Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, thanks to Chinese pipelines and infrastructure improvements.

As Russia’s war continues to fail, Xi will step back further. Then, if Russia falls into a heap, China will gradually take over Siberia and whatever other regions want to build railways, highways or pipelines to Europe and Western prosperity. Checkmate for Xi.

Diane Francis is a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington at its Eurasia Center. She is editor at large at National Post in Canada, a columnist with Kyiv Post, author of 10 books and specializes in geopolitics, white-collar crime, technology and business. She writes a newsletter about America twice weekly on Substack.


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