August 10, 2023

The unfolding situation surrounding China’s participation in peace talks hosted in Saudi Arabia has cast a spotlight on the intricate relationship between China, Russia, and the ongoing Ukrainian conflict. As the war in Ukraine persists, signs emerge that the robust friendship between China and Russia may be encountering its limits.

Amid Russia’s unyielding stance on the Ukrainian conflict, China’s diplomats made a notable appearance at the peace talks in Saudi Arabia. This summit brought together several international delegations, including Ukraine, to explore pathways toward resolving the prolonged conflict that ensued nearly 18 months after Russia’s invasion. Notably absent from the summit was Moscow, which dismissed the event as doomed for failure. Conversely, observers of the talks interpreted China’s involvement as a significant victory for Ukraine and a concerning development for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Simon Miles, an assistant professor at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy with expertise in Soviet history and US-Soviet relations, expressed that China’s engagement in the Saudi talks could have negative implications for Putin. This presence serves to isolate Russia further from its diminishing list of allies, dealing a blow to Putin’s geopolitical aspirations.

Following the talks, China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, emphasized to his Russian counterpart that China remains impartial in the conflict. He reassured Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that the strong bond between the two nations endures, describing them as “reliable good friends and partners.” However, this affirmation comes amidst China’s reluctance to provide full military support as requested by Putin. Additionally, tensions escalated when China declined approval for a Siberian gas pipeline, a move that would significantly benefit Russia’s economy. This series of events indicates a potential widening gap between the two allies.

Despite these indications of growing impatience, experts argue that the China-Russia partnership remains intact. Xi Jinping, China’s leader, shares objectives with Putin that make their alliance mutually advantageous. Both leaders aspire to reduce US influence on the global stage and minimize its impact on international affairs. This shared ambition aligns their interests and reinforces their partnership. Moreover, Xi seeks to enhance China’s position within the existing international order, necessitating a balanced approach that doesn’t alienate Ukraine’s European allies, which are crucial trading partners.

The complex nature of Xi’s goals, which range from countering the US to elevating China’s international status, brings forth a nuanced perspective. While Xi is keen on projecting a responsible image on the global stage, his ambitions occasionally lead to tensions, as observed in the South China Sea and Taiwan-related issues. Sergey Radchenko, a historian specializing in Cold War dynamics at Johns Hopkins University, cautioned against Putin’s heavy reliance on China. He highlighted China’s historical propensity to leverage opposing nations for its benefit, suggesting that Jinping might exploit this dependency in the future.

In conclusion, China’s participation in Saudi peace talks has triggered reflections on the multifaceted China-Russia relationship. While Putin’s concerns about isolation are valid, Xi’s strategic priorities continue to align with Russia’s, fostering a cooperative bond. However, challenges lie ahead as differences surface in areas like military support and economic projects. The intricate balance between these dynamics forms a pivotal backdrop to their evolving partnership.