Opinion Original Patrick Lawrence

Patrick Lawrence: What Just Happened in Moscow Is Big

President of the People’s Republic of China Xi Jinping meets with President of Russia Vladimir Putin at the official welcoming ceremony in the Grand Kremlin Palace in Moscow. Kremlin.ru, CC BY 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

By Patrick Lawrence / Original to ScheerPost

Now that Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping have concluded their summit in Moscow– an unusually long series of meetings over three days–are those purporting to lead the United States prepared to drop their wishful thinking, their miscalculations, and their illusions as to the significance and durability of the Sino–Russian relationship and get with the 21st century? 

Our no-hesitation answer is, “Not a chance.” The policy cliques in Washington signaled daily last week their determination to misread the Russian and Chinese presidents’ 40th summit so as to carry on hallucinating as to America’s “global leadership” and its position at the center of a Ptolemaic universe, the U.S. the earth around which the sun and all other planets revolve. 

The magnitude of the Putin–Xi summit lies beyond question. They got a lot done in all sorts of spheres—trade, energy, resources, infrastructure, investment, high-technology collaborations. If TASS, the Russian wire service, is to be believed, and I don’t see why we should not take its word on this occasion, Sino–Russian relations just took a surprising turn on the security side by way of the depth of their mutual commitments. More on this point anon.

Of these matters you have read little to nothing if you rely on our corporate media. What you have read is a lot of truly bad reporting—this because if Washington is into the game of pretend, so must be the media that serve it.

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This degree of willful blindness is getting to be simply too much. My take on this collective psychosis, if by “psychosis’ we mean a disrupted relationship with reality: The policy people and the baying Russophobes and Sinophobes on Capitol Hill know very well that America’s global preeminence wanes by the day, but no one in power wants to say so. “Not on my watch” is the watchword.  

“Not a chance” it is, immediately, but getting to “Not a chance” is interesting nonetheless. What went on in Moscow during the first half of last week such that Washington and the clerks in the media who serve it were so intent on not understanding what went on? What didn’t go on, equally, and why were our “influencers” and “thought leaders” —I just love these two terms for “the people who tell us what to think”—so chagrined that what didn’t go on didn’t go on?

As was widely misreported, Xi was supposed to travel to Moscow to discuss a “12–point peace plan” the Chinese Foreign Ministry supposedly issued late last month. Here’s the thing about the Chinese peace plan: There is no Chinese peace plan. I have considered the document in question elsewhere. Its title is “China’s Position on the Political Settlement of the Ukraine Crisis.” As this implies, it is a statement of China’s views, nothing more, and was made public, I would say, with a pronounced air of detachment.

So, no peace plan. China has not put up its hand to intervene in Ukraine and solve the crisis. You cannot fail at something you have not attempted.

The Ukraine conflict came up during Putin and Xi’s exchanges, certainly. In a sprawling joint statement signed midway through the talks, Putin acknowledged Beijing’s February 24 position paper and “welcomes China’s willingness to play a positive role for the political and diplomatic settlement of the Ukraine crisis.” The statement goes on to note, “The legitimate security concerns of all countries must be respected, bloc confrontation should be prevented and fanning the flames avoided.” 

The best translation of the entire statement I have seen, with useful interpolation throughout, comes from the China Briefing newsletter written by Chris Devonshire–Ellis at Dezan Shira & Associates, a consultancy with offices all over East Asia and the Subcontinent.  

What are we reading here? I see three points to note.  

One, it falls to Moscow and Kyiv alone to make peace. This can be accomplished by way of the 12 points in China’s position paper—a ceasefire, negotiations, a mutually satisfactory settlement, adherence to international law, provisions for reconstruction. Two, Putin has opened the door to China as a mediator should such a role make sense at some future point. Three, and this is implicit in the document, although Moscow has been clear enough on the point elsewhere: The U.S. and the other Western powers are not acceptable as mediators given the proxy war they are waging against the Russian Federation. 

We find ourselves in Orwell country when we consider the U.S. response to Xi’s “journey of peace,” as the Foreign Ministry in Beijing advertised his trip to Moscow beforehand. Xi didn’t advocate a peaceful settlement in Ukraine and make China available as a mediator should Moscow and Kyiv agree to seek one. No, Xi went to Moscow to signal Beijing’s support for the Russian intervention. Got it? 

Don’t say old George didn’t warn us: War is peace in the world he imagined in 1984. Thirty-nine years on, peace is war. 

As to a ceasefire, a standard prelude to negotiations for centuries, no again, we can’t have that. John Kirby, the National Security Council’s chief spokesman, put it this way on numerous occasions last week: “While a ceasefire sounds good, it actually ratifies Russia’s gains on the ground.”

I have to say, Kirby has struck me as a dim bulb since he complained years ago that the problem on Europe’s eastern flank is Russia is too close to NATO. Once again, he has it upside down: A ceasefire sounds damn good to me and does not ratify an f’ing thing. 

“Ignorance is strength” was another of Orwell’s warnings. Alas, let us contemplate this as John Kirby purports to speak for us.

Global Times, a reliable reflection of official Chinese perspectives, published an interesting piece last Thursday, a day after Xi and Putin concluded their summit. Now that the Saudi–Iranian accord is signed and Xi has made China’s Ukraine case clear in Moscow, Beijing is now intent on more such initiatives. “China’s diplomacy has pressed the ‘accelerate button,’” it begins, “and sounded the clarion call in the spring of 2023 with a series of major diplomatic activities that bring positive changes to a world in turbulence.” The piece goes on to explain that the project now is to put the flesh of tangible achievements—“real actions and notable results”—on the bones of the new world order Beijing has made its top priority over the past two years. 

Whether Ukraine will turn out to be another such notable result must remain an open question. People such as John Kirby tell us Kyiv will consider a ceasefire only when Russia withdraws all its troops and repudiates its claims of sovereignty in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. This is another Kirbyism—a way of saying Kyiv is interested in a ceasefire except it has no interest in a ceasefire. 

This is not so clear as it seemed a short while ago. Volodymyr Zelensky, president of the Kyiv regime, has long been eager to have his own summit with Xi. It is obvious that China could make a huge contribution to a reconstruction effort the World Bank priced last Wednesday at $411 billion. Kyiv has not come out and said point-blank “No,” American-style, to China’s offer to serve as a mediator. This is to be watched.

Pedro Sanchez, Spain’s premier, weighed in on this topic last Friday. “China is a global actor,” he said, “so obviously we must listen to its voice to see if, between all of us, we can put an end to this war and Ukraine can recover its territorial integrity.” Let’s not miss the circumstances here. Sanchez, a right-wing Socialist, spoke in Brussels after a meeting of the European Council; this week he travels to Beijing for talks with Xi. Does Sanchez reflect a body of opinion in the European Union, then? Does he want to use his Beijing visit to put himself across as a global statesman? It is hard to say and hard to say. 

This is not hard to say: Pedro Sanchez has just underscored the greatest threat the Xi–Putin summit presents to the U.S. This is the threat of a peaceful settlement—the threat that China, having trumped Washington big time in the Middle East just a few weeks ago, may eventually do so in Europe. I imagine the rhetoric coming out of the policy cliques in coming months could become wildly nonsensical, John Kirby’s stupid utterances the least of it. Remember, Antony Blinken, a proven master of the nonsensical, is our secretary of state.

Washington has had the Sino–Russian relationship wrong for years. Policy people ignored it back when the two sides began drawing closer in the mid–2010s. When policy heads finally woke up and smelled the mai tai, the thought was to disrupt the relationship by pulling the Chinese away from the Russians. Everything they tried had the effect of pushing the two Eurasian nations closer together. 

Illogic breeds more of same. After Russia launched its intervention a year ago, Blinken’s first effort went to persuading Beijing to turn against Moscow. This was a year after the secretary managed to turn his Chinese counterparts dead against him at that disastrous encounter in Anchorage, about which I have written severally. I loved a Twitter note some clever observer sent out to summarize Blinken’s position after the Ukraine conflict began: Help us attack Russia now so we’ll be free to attack you next. 

When that ill-fated démarche failed after many attempts, Washington took to threatening the Chinese with “consequences” if they supported the Russians diplomatically, economically, technologically, or, certainly, militarily. This has turned out to be nothing more than a failed bluff, to state the obvious. Now the policy cliques are stuck with the line that the would-be maker of peace is eager to help Russia make war. I would wish them good luck with this except that I don’t. 

One of the striking things about the Xi–Putin summit, their joint statement, and many other comments the two leaders made is how little of their time they devoted to the Ukraine question. Assessing the whole of the encounter, the war comes over as a subsidiary question in the context of the two sides’ focus on the larger relationship and their shared concern about the extraordinary disorder the Biden regime’s “rules-based order” has produced.

I get the impression this leaves the big-think people in Washington somewhere between nonplussed and miffed. Maybe it is some of each at this moment. What? You mean the proxy war we’re waging does not command all of your attention? So, once again, will the U.S. miss what is going on between the non–West’s two most prominent powers. 

The overarching objective of the summit was further to strengthen “the China–Russia comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination for a new era,” as the two sides called it in a nine-point joint statement made public at the summit’s conclusion. 

This document made prominent mention of the Treaty of Good–Neighborliness the two sides signed two years ago and, notably, the Joint Statement on International Relations and Global Sustainable Development in the New Era Putin and Xi made public in Beijing a year ago last month. As I have said previously in this space, I rate this the most essential political document to be issued so far in our century. Last week’s mention of it makes the core vision of the summit plain: It is to build out on the ground the new world order the Joint Statement described. 

Putin and Xi had large delegations sitting at what must have been many mahogany tables in the course of their three-day encounter. Trade, investment, high-technology, nuclear power, space exploration, an Arctic sea route: The two sides signed 14 agreements committing themselves to collaborating in such areas. These are the kind of things Beijing might call “real actions and notable results.” 

Two topics are worthy of special note. Russia is to begin denominating trade with third countries in Chinese yuan, indicating the seriousness the two sides attach to the long-term project of de-dollarizing international trade. Further talks were held on a pipeline that will deliver 50 billion cubic meters of Russia’s natural gas annually to China via Mongolia. But, the Chinese being second only to the Japanese as tough business negotiators in my estimation, price of product and which side will construct the pipeline seem still to be determined. 

I do not know why I read that there is plenty in the summit to Russia’s advantage but little to China’s. Russia needs new markets for its resources to compensate for the damage Western sanctions have done this past year, true enough. It also needs China’s technology. But isn’t the flip side just as obvious? China needs to secure supplies of oil, gas, foodstuffs, minerals, and other resources, not to mention a large non–Western market, in response to signs that the U.S. could—this threat is real, believe it or not—one day impose a naval blockade in the Strait of Malacca or along the Chinese coast. Either would choke off China’s foreign trade. 

Is Washington accomplished or what when it comes to deepening the Sino–Russian relationship?  

This leads to that TASS report mentioned earlier. It brings remarkable news. 

“Moscow and Beijing will help each other to defend their core interests,” it begins. Citing a joint statement, it then notes that these include “territorial integrity and security.” Next paragraph: “According to the document, Russia and China are poised to ‘provide resolute mutual support with regard to matters of defending each other’s core interests, primarily sovereignty, territorial integrity, security and development.’” 

This is a very big deal. When Putin and Xi made public their Joint Statement last year, they famously described a “no limits” friendship. “No limits” would seem to take in every eventuality, but the two leaders then and since have avoided the term “alliance.” This has a very specific meaning in the lexicon of statecraft: It describes two or more nations’ commitment to defend one another militarily. The TASS report is similarly coy, but read the quoted language again. Moscow and Beijing have just agreed to form an alliance, staying three syllables short of a formal declaration.

There are some oddities to note. TASS says the Kremlin published the joint statement Tuesday, midway through the summit. And it quotes directly from it, persuasively enough. But such statements as this are normally made public simultaneously in Moscow and Beijing, and TASS did not mention the Chinese Foreign Ministry, which typically does corresponding duty. Neither “Kremlin.ru” nor “fmprc.com,” the Chinese ministry’s website, has to date published the statement—not, as is their custom, in English translations and to my knowledge not in Russian or Mandarin, either. 

A conundrum, then. Did the two sides decide in the end against signing the document? Was the TASS report a trial balloon? Did they sign the statement but remain in no hurry to put it out in English? I have no answers to these questions. But this much appears to be clear: There is a joint statement on mutual defense, TASS saw it and acted responsibly by quoting from it, and, whatever the formal status of the agreement described, Russia and China are very close to advancing their ties in the direction of an alliance, if they have not already done so.

Big, as I say. 

On the Russian side, there is no indication that China has made a judgment on the fraught question of Russia’s and Ukraine’s territorial integrity as regards the breakaway republics that voted in referendums last year to join the Russian Federation. In my read, China continues to suspend its judgment on this question.  On the Chinese side, things seem clearer. U.S. media are forever referring to Taiwan as a self-ruled island “which China claims as part of its territory.” This is true but evasive. China does claim lawful sovereignty over Taiwan—and with many centuries’ history behind its claim. 

To put the point plainly, since American officials and journalists never do: Taiwan is part of China. There is ambiguity on this point only among those who wish this were not so. The joint statement on which TASS reported thus has major, major implications for Moscow as all the phobes in Washington raise the temperature on Taiwan every chance they get. 

It is just a guess but are such questions as Taiwan and Ukraine why an agreement on mutual defense was drafted but… not yet signed, not yet made public, or not yet something else?

Can you hear the wind whistling past your ears as China steps forward as a global diplomatic power, and as relations such as China’s and Russia’s advance? I can. My seatbelt is fastened, for there is more, much more to come. 

Footnote: The spiky, sparky Maria Zakharova, the Russian Foreign Ministry’s spokeswoman, came out with a zinger the other day I have to share. “When will Macron start supplying weapons to French citizens to maintain the country’s democracy and sovereignty?” she wondered from her podium in the ministry’s press room. It makes a good exercise in seeing from the perspectives of others. Thanks to @Trollstoy88 for sharing the moment.

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Patrick Lawrence
Patrick Lawrence

Patrick Lawrence, a correspondent abroad for many years, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune, is a media critic, essayist, author and lecturer. His most recent book is Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century. His web site is Patrick Lawrence. Support his work via his Patreon siteHis Twitter account, @thefloutist, has been permanently censored without explanation.


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