This was the warm-up act. The visit of Wang Yi, China’s top diplomat, to Moscow this week was designed to set in train a fresh Chinese approach to bilateral ties almost a year after Russia ordered the invasion of Ukraine.
Although the headline quotes from Wang’s meeting with President Vladimir Putin played up promises to “deepen political mutual trust” and “strengthen strategic co-ordination”, Beijing’s real objectives are much more complex, according to Chinese official sources and commentators.
One of its main aims is to repair China’s badly damaged image in the west — particularly with leading trade partners in Europe — by showing its efforts to urge Moscow towards a political settlement of the war. It is also intent on letting western powers know that China stands firmly against the use of nuclear weapons by Russia.
“During an in-depth exchange of views on the Ukrainian issue with Putin, Wang appreciated Russia’s reaffirmation of its willingness to solve problems through dialogue and negotiations,” said China’s statement from the Putin-Wang meeting.
“China will, as always, uphold an objective and fair stance and play a constructive role in the political settlement of the crisis,” it added.
Li Mingjiang, a professor at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, says the impetus to seek a political solution to the war is gaining importance in Beijing.
“By making this statement, Wang wanted to emphatically convey the message to the Russian leader that China is becoming more serious about a political settlement for the war in Ukraine, and that not everything in the Chinese proposal may make Moscow happy,” he says.
China is due to issue a “position paper” on Friday — the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion — that is set to reinforce Beijing’s call for a political settlement to the war.
A Chinese official, who declined to be identified, says that a mooted visit to Moscow by China’s leader, Xi Jinping, was predicated on his first receiving positive feedback from Russia towards China’s call for dialogue and negotiations. Beijing is worried that without such confirmation, Putin could use a Xi visit simply to bolster his own standing.
According to a statement from the Kremlin, Putin told Wang that Moscow “is expecting” a visit from Xi. Beijing, however, has yet to officially confirm whether such a visit will go ahead.
This divergence is one of several clues that behind-the-scenes tensions exist in the China-Russia relationship. “Indeed, many policy elites in China would say that Moscow made a big trouble for China by launching the war in Ukraine,” says Li.
Several senior Chinese officials have told the Financial Times that Putin did not inform Xi about his plans for a full invasion of Ukraine when the two met in early February last year, and issued a communique describing their ties as having “no limits”.
China has since dropped the “no limits” phrase from its official communications and Wang did not use it during his visit to Moscow. “There is a general reflection in the Chinese policy community that Chinese officials should not have used that phrase at all,” says Li.
Beijing is caught in a bind. No matter how exasperated it feels towards Moscow, it cannot afford to jettison its “comprehensive strategic partnership” with Russia. Nevertheless, it also wants to rehabilitate its reputation among key European trade partners. Positioning itself as a messenger for peace is the strategy it has hit upon to reconcile these conflicting interests.