It wasn’t frontpage news when Presidents Vladimir Putin of Russia and Xi Jinping of China met in Beijing on Wednesday, October 18. The world was absorbed with Hamas murderers having brutally attacked Israel in a fashion where only words like inhuman and monstrous apply. Consequently, attention was diverted from two major players on the global stage meeting in the wings. But the meeting was important, nonetheless.
The relationship developing between China and Russia has led to several reciprocal visits. Presumably, the visits have been to discuss ways in which Xi can be supportive of Putin’s unprovoked war on Ukraine. Concern by the Biden administration that Beijing is providing technology and weapons has been the subject of discussions between the US and the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The focus of the most recent meetings in the Chinese capital was more economic, emphasizing ways to push the Beijing Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)
Beijing Meeting Was a Lovefest
As has been the case so often in past Xi-Putin meetings, the atmosphere was a lovefest with mutual back-slapping and gushing admiration. “President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday (October 18) praised Chinese President Xi Jinping for the Belt and Road Initiative and invited global investment in the Northern Sea route which he said could deepen trade between east and west,” Laurie Chen and Vladimir Soldatkin reported for Reuters. “Putin has praised the initiative (BRI), saying it is a platform for international cooperation, where ‘no one imposes anything on others,’” a companion Reuters dispatch said. The part about Russia “imposing” its invasion on Ukraine must have slipped the mind of the Kremlin’s leader. China is among very few countries Putin can visit since the International Criminal Court in the Hague put out in March an arrest warrant charging him for effectively kidnapping Ukrainian children and moving them to Russia.
However, the geopolitical events and activities in recent months and, most recently, the heinous Hamas attack on Israel provide a variety of subjects Moscow and Beijing would want to discuss as two of the four threats to peace in the world, the other two being Iran and North Korea. Moscow and Beijing acknowledged a desire to get their stories straight. “’In the current difficult conditions, close foreign policy coordination is especially required,’ Putin said in his opening remarks,” according to an Associated Press account.
“Putin called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday, reportedly offering his help in preventing a humanitarian disaster while also sharing information about recent calls with regional leaders,” Fox News reported. However, “Israeli officials complained early into the conflict that China offered ‘no clear and unequivocal condemnation of the terrible massacre committed by the terrorist organization Hamas against innocent civilians and the abduction of dozens of them to Gaza,’” according to Fox. Additionally, Russia’s Putin has not condemned Hamas.
China Had Perverse Reason for Silence
There may be a reason for China’s silence. In a perverse calculus, the Hamas terrorist attack has benefitted Beijing. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) sees itself with an opportunity to be the peacemaker in the Middle East. It believes it demonstrated this capability in brokering an agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran. But before the Hamas attack in Israel, the US was on the cusp of arranging a historic peace deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia. “Biden had hoped to crown his presidential term with a historic peace agreement between Israel and the most powerful Arab state – that now seems unlikely,” a Politico subtitle reads. With the US firmly backing Israel, Saudi Arabia is potentially pushed toward a stronger relationship with China, which brings the Asian giant closer to achieving its desired image of peacemaker in the Middle East, having been the catalyst for one important agreement between Riyadh and Tehran. China’s reluctance to condemn Hamas also strengthens the Tehran-Beijing bond. Iran loathed the idea of Saudi and Israel normalizing relations.
Russia, not condemning Hamas outright, also supports both China and Iran. Moscow cannot irritate Iran, which is providing large quantities of drones and other weapons to enable Russia to keep up attacks in Ukraine. And more important, the CCP-Kremlin association is critical for Russia as a source of cash to keep its economy afloat as it is hemorrhaging rubles paying for its war on Ukraine. “China is a key customer for Russian oil and gas, providing Moscow with an economic lifeline in the face of punishing Western sanctions imposed over its campaign against Ukraine,” an AP report said.
China and Russia have cause to see the crisis in Israel as a byzantine but valuable geopolitical event. “Foreign policy experts note that for Russia and China, the fighting between Israel and Hamas is a ‘long-awaited distraction’ from the Ukraine war and China’s ongoing crackdown on Uyghurs in Xinjiang,” Karina Tsui wrote for Semafor. Though the Israel-Hamas war has pushed the US competition with Russia and China from the front page above the fold, the distraction will be short-lived. Putin and Xi cannot help themselves. Their combined threat to the West in Europe and the Indo-Pacific endures.