Is China looking for Putin’s successor and the end of Russia’s war in Ukraine?

While we should not expect China to play a vital role in achieving peace in Ukraine, China’s position is essential in pushing Russia to stop the war it decided to start. But for Chinese strategy, neither Ukraine nor Russia must win. A Ukrainian victory would mean the collapse of the Putin regime and Russia’s dismantlement, meaning China would lose an important ally and control over Russia.

China’s interests in the war outcome

However, it is becoming clear that the exhausted Russian army is not capable of winning. Instead, the Ukrainian army, reinforced by Western weapons, could make gains during the counteroffensive in the summer of 2023. 

Nevertheless, a protracted war is likely not in China’s interests either. Therefore, an agreement to resolve the conflict, but with a change of government in Russia to a Beijing protege who retains control over Moscow, is becoming an increasingly likely scenario.

According to some political analysts, Xi’s visit to Moscow aimed to coordinate China’s economic absorption of Russia, establish control over Moscow’s policies, and obtain essential resources as a bonus.

So far, China’s actual policy is one of the most troubling aspects of the Russo-Ukrainian War. Despite all the atrocities and possible crimes against humanity, of which Russian troops were accused, Beijing could not criticise Russia’s all-out war on Ukraine. 

Distancing from Putin and promoting Mishustin

China is steadily distancing itself from Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, although cautiously. Chinese President Xi Jinping is openly engaging Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin underlines this trend, Anders Aslund writes for Atlantic Council.

Just two weeks before launching a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Putin got from Xi Jinping a declaration of “friendship without limits” during their meeting during the Beijing Olympics. However, some notable limitations have since emerged. 

Apparently, China has declined to transfer armaments and technology to Russia. But China has also voted against a half-dozen U.N. General Assembly resolutions criticising Russia’s aggression against Ukraine.

China’s peace plan for the Russia-Ukraine war

China submitted its twelve-point peace plan to stop the war in Ukraine in February 2023. Ukraine supporters have objected that this plan does not denounce Russia or demand for Russian troops to leave Ukraine. 

However, the first element of China’s plan states: “Respecting the sovereignty of all countries.” Universally recognised international law, including the purposes and principles of the United Nations Charter, must be strictly observed. The sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity of all countries must be effectively upheld.” China implies that Russia must withdraw its troops from Ukraine.

Xi achieved his goals in the Moscow talks, while Putin didn’t

When Xi Jinping paid an official three-day visit to Russia in March 2023, it was seen as a significant event. It was Xi’s first international encounter after his re-election as President of the People’s Republic of China at the 2023 National People’s Congress, and it provided Putin with an unusual break in his international isolation.

But Putin appears to have had a bad day. His major official initiative, the “Power of Siberia” gas pipeline from western Siberia to China, was flatly refused by Xi, effectively limiting Russia’s capacity to sell gas to China for a while to come. Neither arms nor sensitive technology shipments to Russia appear to have been approved by Xi. Contrary to strict Chinese etiquette, Xi met separately with Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin.

Then Chinese Prime Minister Li Qiang called upon his Russian counterpart, Mishustin, to Beijing for an official visit in late May. Mishustin is the highest-ranking Russian official to visit China since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began in February 2022. On the second day of his visit, Xi Jinping greeted Mishustin in the Great Hall of the People, going totally against Chinese and Russian traditions.

Is China looking for Putin’s successor?

The obvious question is why Mishustin was invited by the Chinese but not Putin. Putin appears to have understood and reacted. Mishustin is one of thirteen permanent members of Russia’s Security Council, which meets every ten days and is always chaired by Putin. 

All except one or two of the permanent members are usually present. Mishustin attended the penultimate meeting before his trip to China on May 15. Still, he was absent on May 26 and June 2 following his triumphant return. Absences from Security Council meetings are never publicly explained.

This suggests that China is looking beyond Putin and cultivating alternative partnerships in Russia. Such objective observations are preferable to speculative rumours and can reveal much. To begin with, it becomes evident that China’s “friendship without limits” with Russia has limitations. China is more concerned with the U.S. and E.U. secondary sanctions than with aiding Russia in its war against Ukraine.

China does assert that widely recognised international law, including the goals and values of the United Nations Charter, must be firmly adhered to, implying that it is fundamentally opposed to Russia’s invasion. 

The Chinese leader has shown dissatisfaction with Putin and may be looking to Mishustin as a pragmatic option for a change of ruler in the Russian Federation. By ostensibly barring Mishustin from his two most recent Security Council sessions, Putin has demonstrated that he is aware of and dissatisfied with recent developments. Typically, Putin would have summoned Mishustin before the Security Council to report on what he had achieved in China.

Russia’s total dependence on China

In the Xi-Putin talks, China and Russia have agreed on two strategic documents at the highest level. The package of agreements relating to economic development is designed to last until 2030. By 2030, Russia plans to supply China with 98 billion cubic metres of gas and 100 million tonnes of liquefied natural gas. Russia aims to become one of the largest continental hydrocarbon suppliers to China.

China’s achievements in Russia include the following:

  • Energy and raw materials supplies.
  • Access to the Russian market for Chinese manufacturers.
  • Russia’s transition to the yuan in international payments.
  • China’s assistance in the Arctic race.

This is what China wants to achieve in full after the upcoming change of power in Russia.

Russia will also sell more agricultural products, timber, and chemicals to China. For Beijing, the flow of Russian resources will be significant because of the increase in its consumption, which will help support its economic growth. All this will finally secure Russia’s long-term status as a “raw material base of China”.

Chinese companies will continue to take niches in the Russian market left by Western corporations. Joint ventures may be established to manufacture products using Chinese technology, the best example of which has already been implemented in the automotive industry.

One of the most important agreements is the decision to establish a joint body for the Northern Sea Route project. In effect, China has been allowed to develop Russia’s Arctic territories. In the future, the shortest trade route will run through the Arctic, as this region is rich in valuable resources. 

In addition, Russia and China have agreed to increase the share of the yuan in bilateral payments. More than 65% of Sino-Russian trade is not conducted in dollars. The Russian Federation will use the accumulated yuan to cooperate with other countries, helping China promote its currency as an international currency. 

Russia will also share with China the Soviet technologies in the aerospace and nuclear industries. Moscow will continue to build the Xuidapu NPP and the Tianwan NPP in China. Essential for Beijing is Russian-Chinese cooperation in space, where Russia will be a technological donor. A partnership in high technology has also been announced, with Chinese tech giants likely to dominate.

Already in 2022, Beijing purchased a record amount of Russian energy, partially replacing supplies from Qatar, Turkmenistan, and Saudi Arabia. Last year, China’s imports of Russian energy resources, which account for more than 40% of Russia’s budget revenues, increased from $52.8 billion to $81.3 billion.

Although China is currently satisfied with the endless flow of cheap Russian energy, Xi Jinping’s government is still focused on diversifying its supplies, in effect wanting to avoid the mistake of Europe, which drove itself into dependence on Russia. 

Russia’s dependence on China has become almost total. So, Xi’s visit to Moscow was a success. China slightly takes over Russia, especially its economy and resources.

Putin accepted China’s dominance to survive the war in Ukraine

The Kremlin dictator has put everything at stake in his insane plan to seize Ukraine as China is strengthening control over the Russian economy and natural resources. The Chinese presence in eastern Russia is growing, bolstering its political influence over the Kremlin. 

At the same time, tens of thousands of Russian men were mobilised and sent to certain death in the war in Ukraine. And that absurd sacrifice of Russians finally goes for China’s interests. 

Putin has received China’s supplies and economic backing to avoid losing the battle in Ukraine in the short term. China, though, is not being charitable. Beijing’s policy is clever. Xi Jinping has exploited Putin’s precarious position to acquire geopolitical and strategic gains from his reckless war. 

Why did Putin accept such a deal? Well, without China’s support, he would run out of resources to finance Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine and would face total isolation in the U.N. Security Council’s votes.

Chinese interests in relations with Russia

The Chinese government primarily considers Russia a good tool for undermining the West. Still, the Chinese have always perceived Russia itself as a potential competitor. China does not perceive Russia as an ally. 

Beijing is weakening its neighbour regarding economy and security, which can now be used for its purposes. Therefore, Xi’s whole concept is based on increasing influence on Russia, gaining some control over its natural resources, but at the same weakening its capabilities.

On the other hand, the driving force behind Xi Jinping’s meeting with Vladimir Putin was China’s desire to build a kind of “coalition” to counteract the United States and launch a new “world order” more in line with the Chinese leader’s authoritarian vision. China is trying to create a “multipolar world” in which it will get a dominant position as the main counterweight to the United States.

As the West seeks to isolate Russia, China’s leverage over Moscow has grown. The most exciting thing is that Russia’s dependence on China has gone beyond the economic and security areas. This dependence has become geopolitical because Moscow is doomed to a quick collapse in its absurd war in Ukraine without China’s economic support.

China-US talks 

These ideas are supported by the attempts of the United States and China to normalise relations. U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken arrived in China and met with Xi Jinping on June 19. The parties stated that during the talks, China and the United States “made progress” on several issues. The representatives of the two geopolitical powers could have discussed issues that directly affect the Russia-Ukraine war. 

One of the goals of Antony Blinken’s trip to China was to establish communications with Beijing. In particular, there were questions about ways to address the Russian-Ukrainian war. At the global level, it is one of the elements of the confrontation between the United States and China. A potential agreement between the U.S. and China on the Russian war could include withdrawing Russian troops from the occupied Ukrainian territories with a change of power in Moscow, which would involve a figure favourable to Beijing, probably Mishustin.

Russia’s business elite is highly concerned about this rapprochement between Moscow and Beijing. After all, China is the number one country in the world regarding the number of billionaires. In the Russian market, Chinese corporations will eat up all the Russian billionaires who have lost enormous resources due to the Western sanctions against Russia for its war in Ukraine. 

Therefore, the Russian rich have two options: to continue losing with Putin because of his senseless war or to lose their wealth due to China’s economic absorption of Russia. The third option would involve a simultaneous end to the war against Ukraine and a change of power in the Kremlin to a protege of the business elites. But they will need more time to achieve.

Internal conflicts within Russia could lead to the collapse of the Russian Federation. Initiatives have already been launched to support a controlled Russia’s collapse, decolonisation and granting independence to indigenous peoples. However, this scenario is not favourable to China, as it would leave it face-to-face with the West without an influential ally. That is why Beijing may resort to measures to preserve the integrity of the Russian Federation but with a change of government.

The fact that China does not support Putin’s adventurous and irrational war and is distancing from his regime was made clear by the May vote at the U.N. It was the first time China voted in favour of a U.N. General Assembly resolution that named Russia an aggressor. Previously, China had voted against or abstained from such votes. 

This does not mean that China interprets this in the same way as Ukraine, as the Chinese voted against the U.N. resolution that demanded the territorial integrity of Ukraine and the withdrawal of Russian troops from the territory of Ukraine. At the same time, the visions of China and Russia on territorial integrity also differ significantly.

Reasons Why Ukraine and the West Rejected China’s peace plan

China’s “peace plan” was met with a cold reception in Europe and Ukraine and was seen as biassed towards Moscow’s benefits. The United States is very sceptical about China’s “peace initiative” as it does not provide sufficient pressure on Russia, which is the aggressor and the driving force behind the continuation of this war. U.S. State Secretary Antony Blinken said that “the world should not be misled” and that China’s attempts to stop the war would only freeze the conflict and reward Russia with occupied Ukrainian territories.

President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy also reacted to attempts to promote the Chinese “peace plan” at the meeting between Xi Jinping and Putin. Zelenskyy stressed that Ukraine has its own “peace formula”, which Kyiv presented to the world and sent to the Chinese side. Ukraine hopes Beijing will read the Ukrainian peace proposal and draw the necessary conclusions. 

Calls on China to use its influence and to pressure Russia to stop the war

The West is also trying to persuade China to read the Ukrainian “peace formula” and put more pressure on Russia to stop its aggression and withdraw its troops. 

These calls are becoming increasingly frequent and loud, including from Chancellor Olaf Scholz at his meeting with Chinese Premier Li. And they are heard and understood in Beijing.

China’s moving towards a strategic victory

China is playing a long game to achieve its targets – weaken the West and Russia simultaneously, get valuable Russian resources, but keep Moscow as an ally in its struggle for a multipolar world to challenge U.S. dominance in geopolitics. 

As John Bolton (former U.S. National Security advisor) has written, Beijing knows that Russia’s loss would also provide a strategic victory to China. However, for the Chinese, Russia’s loss looks different from that of the West – it does not imply the collapse of the Putin regime but the Kremlin’s complete subordination to Beijing’s interests.

Coming back to possible Putin’s replacement in China’s interests, Mishustin has been careful not to mention the Russia-Ukraine war or his trip to China publicly. His father is thought to have served in the KGB and been the head of the Russian tax service and a wealthy investment banker. Mishustin is frequently disregarded in analyses of politicians’ support in Russia. Still, his interactions with China and internal developments in Russian politics should be closely monitored in the coming months.

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