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China In Eurasia Briefing: Xi Gets Pragmatic About Russia At The G20


The meeting between U.S. President Joe Biden (right) and Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Bali was not a breakthrough but did repair some damage in relations.

Welcome back to the China In Eurasia briefing, an RFE/RL newsletter tracking China’s resurgent influence from Eastern Europe to Central Asia. I’m RFE/RL correspondent Reid Standish.

Before we get started, a few announcements: The newsletter is now biweekly, rather than going out only on the first and third Wednesdays of each month. To subscribe, click here.

And I will also be launching Talking China In Eurasia, a new podcast. I’m joined by the Royal United Services Institute’s Raffaello Pantucci to talk about Xi and Putin. Listen to the first episode here or below.

Xi Gets Pragmatic About Russia At The G20

It was light on optimism, but U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping injected a healthy dose of pragmatism back into the U.S.-China relationship with their meeting in Bali at a time when global anxiety is rising over Russia’s war against Ukraine.

Finding Perspective: The meeting on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit was far from a breakthrough, but it did repair some damage from the recent backslide in relations between both countries and send some signals that the world isn’t necessarily destined for Cold War 2.0.

The more than three-hour talks saw some blunt exchanges over contentious issues like Taiwan and North Korea, but the two leaders also pledged more frequent communications and decided that U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken will travel to Beijing for follow-up talks in 2023.

Of particular note, Biden raised Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and threats by Russian President Vladimir Putin to use nuclear weapons. Both leaders “reiterated their agreement that a nuclear war should never be fought,” according to a White House readout.

While far from a sea change for Chinese policy, that’s notable. The credibility of Beijing’s claims to be neutral on the Ukraine war continue to come under scrutiny, and China has shown discomfort of late with the Kremlin’s nuclear saber-rattling.

Xi made similar comments after a November 4 summit with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and during another G20 meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron, according to the French readout.

Why It Matters: Xi is not abandoning Putin, but this marks the latest shift for Beijing’s balancing act over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Four Chinese officials briefed on the February 4 meeting between Xi and Putin, where they declared a “no-limits” partnership, told the Financial Times that “Putin didn’t tell Xi the truth” about the invasion and that Beijing was caught off guard by it.

What Xi knew about Putin’s war plans has been a topic of debate, and there is evidence to support both the idea that Xi was aware and that he was caught off guard.

Many analysts are of the opinion that Xi knew about Putin's decision to invade but expected a quick victory, which perhaps was what Putin believed at the time.

How Much Leverage Does Xi Have Over Putin?
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Others point to a steady stream of dismissals from Chinese officials and experts about the likelihood of an invasion in February and the fact that Beijing did not evacuate its citizens from Ukraine – like Western nations did – as evidence that China was not expecting a war.

China certainly has its own interests in keeping a distance from Moscow’s war and using that space to do some upkeep with the West. But perhaps the most important point here is that even if Putin did blindside Xi, China has stuck with Russia despite its battlefield failures, political isolation, and the atrocities its troops are accused of committing.

Again, this is pragmatism more than anything else. As Chinese experts often say, even if Russia is looking unattractive these days, why would Beijing abandon its main anti-Western partner as China continues to be in the crosshairs of rising American pressure?

Read More

● Want to hear more about Russia and China’s complex relationship amid the Ukraine war? Then tune in to the debut of Talking China In Eurasia today at 2 p.m. CET/ 8 a.m. EST. You can listen live here and find the episode on RFE/RL’s website and wherever you listen to your podcasts.

● Condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its global fallout is shaping up to be the key theme of the G20, with the Financial Times reporting that a joint communique from the summit takes aim at Moscow.

Expert Corner: The Future Of The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC)

Readers asked: “Did Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s recent trip to Beijing breathe new life into the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC)? How do Islamabad and Beijing really feel about the project after all these years?”

To find out more, I asked Filippo Boni, an expert on China-Pakistan relations at the Open University in Britain:

“Shehbaz Sharif's visit to China was high on symbolism and relatively low on substance. While the two sides were keen to reaffirm and emphasize the strength of their strategic partnership, no significant new commitment was made. Apart from a few memorandums of understanding and attempts from the Pakistanis in the run-up to the trip to address some of CPEC’s issues – including payments to Chinese independent power producers – nothing major came from the visit. This is despite Sharif's attempts at revitalizing CPEC since April and the very close ties he enjoys with the Chinese leadership.

“The outcome of this visit is not entirely surprising, especially if interpreted against the backdrop of Pakistan's current domestic predicaments. The security situation for Chinese nationals has deteriorated, the economy is struggling, and political instability is at one of its highest points in recent years. All these dynamics, coupled with the global scaling down of Belt and Road Initiative financing, have likely impacted Beijing's lack of commitment to new projects.

“After almost 10 years and $25 billion worth of projects, there seems to be a general consensus on both sides that the first phase of CPEC – the one focused primarily on energy projects – was largely successful. The same cannot be said for the second phase, including the slow progress on the development of Special Economic Zones, and for the port of Gwadar, where little progress has been made for the port’s full commercial functioning.”

Do you have a question about China’s growing footprint in Eurasia? Send it to me at StandishR@rferl.org or reply directly to this e-mail and I’ll get it answered by leading experts and policymakers.

Three More Stories From Eurasia

1. 'Sweep It Under The Rug'

Recent allegations of China operating 54 overseas “police stations” have fueled controversy around the world and sparked investigations, but in Hungary and Serbia the new findings are being met with swift denials by authorities, despite growing evidence.

The Details: My colleagues Akos Keller-Alant from RFE/RL’s Hungarian Service, Mila Durdevic from RFE/RL’s Balkan Service, and I reported on the fallout from these revelations and the slew of probes launched in many European countries recently.

The stations are overseas operations of the public security bureaus from two Chinese provinces and are used to persuade citizens to return to China, including through pressure on family members at home. While most of those involved appear to be suspected of crimes such as telecommunications fraud or corruption, dissidents have also reported that the stations have been used to monitor and threaten them.

Fourteen governments have already launched investigations into the overseas police stations, and the Dutch and Irish governments have ordered China to shut down the facilities in their countries.

But in Hungary and Serbia – two countries where Beijing is said to operate such facilities and whose governments prize their warming political and economic ties with China – officials appear to be trying to “sweep it under the rug,” as one analyst characterized it, despite growing scrutiny from opposition lawmakers in each country.

2. Global Ripples Hit Central Asia

Political and economic shocks from Moscow’s war in Ukraine, coupled with added strains from tensions between Beijing and Washington, are taking their toll around the world, especially in Central Asia, where countries in the region are closely tied to both China and Russia.

What It Means: As RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service reported, Vladimir Norov, the country’s foreign minister, warned about geopolitical tensions affecting stability in the region and beyond while addressing his counterparts at an Organization of Turkic States meeting in Samarkand.

The breakdown in global cooperation is felt particularly strong in Central Asia. While some economies have been able to benefit by becoming a new home for businesses and capital relocated from Russia, others are seeing investment dry up and their economies coming under strain.

World Bank Vice President for Europe and Central Asia Anna Bjerde recently warned that Uzbekistan needs to continue with its market reforms in order to withstand the global economic shocks that are to come.

RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service also reported that the country’s government is trying to court more investment but that questions remain from investors about Kyrgyzstan’s stability and investment climate. According to official statistics from January to June of this year, China is the leading source of foreign investment, with $129 million during that span.

3. The Tech In Moscow’s Iranian Drones

A new investigation by Schemes, the investigative unit of RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, looked into electronic components underpinning Tehran's production of the Mohajer-6 drone, which Russia has used in its war in Ukraine, and found that they’re “far from homegrown.”

What You Need To Know: The Mohajer-6 drones contain components produced by companies from the United States and the European Union, both of which have sanctions restricting the export to Iran of technology that can be used for both civilian and military purposes.

The investigation also found drone components produced in China, including a real-time mini-camera made by a Hong Kong firm.

The drone also contains a microchip bearing the logo of a California technology company and a thermal-imaging camera that Ukrainian intelligence says may have been produced by a firm based in Oregon or China.

The international tech in the drone not only highlights the complex ecosystem that allows firms and buyers to circumvent sanctions slapped on both Iran and Russia, but also the close networks between Chinese and Western tech companies that still exist, despite a recent push to break some of those linkages.

Across The Supercontinent

On The Mainland: The watchdog group Freedom House recently launched a new project called the China Dissent Monitor, which tracks protests and other forms of dissent inside China. Read it here.

Censored: Chinese authorities behind a major trade expo in Shanghai pulled an opening ceremony address by European Council President Charles Michel that was set to criticize Russia's “illegal war” in Ukraine and call for reduced European dependency on China, Reuters reported.

Backtracking: British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has softened his country’s stance toward China, moving away from his predecessor Liz Truss’s decision to label it a “threat.”

One Thing To Watch

How long will China’s stringent COVID policies stay in place?

New infections are rising as a winter wave hits and popular frustration continues to boil over inside the country as investor confidence stays dented over the measures. New footage also showed crowds of residents in the southern metropolis of Guangzhou escaping a compulsory lockdown and clashing with police.

That’s all from me for now. Don’t forget to send me any questions, comments, or tips that you might have.

Until next time,

Reid Standish

If you enjoyed this briefing and don't want to miss the next edition, subscribe here. It will be sent to your in-box on the first and third Wednesdays of each month.

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    Reid Standish

    Reid Standish is an RFE/RL correspondent in Prague and author of the China In Eurasia briefing. He focuses on Chinese foreign policy in Eastern Europe and Central Asia and has reported extensively about China's Belt and Road Initiative and Beijing’s internment camps in Xinjiang. Prior to joining RFE/RL, Reid was an editor at Foreign Policy magazine and its Moscow correspondent. He has also written for The Atlantic and The Washington Post.

About The Newsletter

In recent years, it has become impossible to tell the biggest stories shaping Eurasia without considering China’s resurgent influence in local business, politics, security, and culture.

Subscribe to this biweekly dispatch in which correspondent Reid Standish builds on the local reporting from RFE/RL’s journalists across Eurasia to give you unique insights into Beijing’s ambitions and challenges.

To subscribe, click here.

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