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Opinion Xi Jinping is Vladimir Putin’s co-conspirator in Ukraine

Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Beijing on Feb. 4. (Alexei Druzhinin, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File)

Ever since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his brutal and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, the Chinese government has attempted to portray itself as a neutral player or even a potential key to solving the crisis. In reality, Chinese President Xi Jinping is acting as Putin’s co-conspirator. Make no mistake. China has made its choice — and it’s not siding with Ukraine or the West.

It’s not surprising that Western observers are confused by China’s foreign policy, especially on Ukraine. In its public diplomacy, Beijing claims that its foreign policy is rooted in concepts like noninterference and respect for state sovereignty. Just days before the invasion, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told a European audience that this applied directly to Ukraine. Continuing the ruse, Xi called the situation “deeply worrying,” and asked for “maximum restraint” in a recent call with European leaders. China abstained from a U.N. Security Council vote condemning Russia, part of its campaign to pretend its foreign policy is still independent.

Pundits and officials have seized upon Beijing’s rhetoric to convince themselves that China must be deeply conflicted about Ukraine, or that China could be persuaded to help pressure Putin. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Wang last Saturday and told him Beijing should be publicly condemning Moscow.

“We would expect China, based on everything it’s said in the past, to stand up and make its voice heard,” Blinken told CNN of his remarks to Wang. “And I hope that they will do that.”

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But looking at Beijing’s actions, it’s clear that China threw in its lot with Russia early — and that hasn’t changed. About three weeks before the invasion, Putin and Xi met in Beijing and issued their now-infamous statement of more than 5,000 words pledging “no limits” to their “friendship” and no “forbidden” areas of cooperation. Xi also got Putin to sign a 30-year gas deal on favorable terms to Beijing.

Xi reportedly not only gave Putin a green light for his Ukraine invasion but also asked Putin to wait until the Beijing Olympics concluded. Putin announced Russia’s recognition of two separatist Ukrainian territories as independent the very next day after the Closing Ceremonies and launched his military attack three days later. The timeline speaks for itself.

Xi and Putin spoke the day after Russia began its invasion. The Chinese readout of the call includes familiar phrases about China’s belief in sovereignty but signals its side by saying, “China supports Russia in resolving the issue through negotiation with Ukraine.” The Russian readout said that the two leaders agreed that sanctions were “illegitimate” and pledged even closer cooperation.

“Putin went to Beijing as the supplicant and got China’s tacit support for his war, at the price of mortgaging Russia’s future to China,” former deputy national security adviser Matthew Pottinger told me. “Xi is, in essence, a co-conspirator. We have to call him out for it, not pretend he’s a neutral bystander.”

Beijing continues to try to convince the West of its neutrality, while using its state-run propaganda machine to promote Russia’s narrative internally and abroad. Chinese social media platforms were ordered to scrub all pro-Ukraine posts. Chinese media outlets are even embedding journalists with Russian troops. The Chinese Foreign Ministry is now parroting Russian government accusations about U.S.-controlled bioweapons labs in Ukraine that the U.S. government calls “preposterous.”

Meanwhile, Chinese firms are exploring how to bail out Russia’s energy sector, which would dilute Western sanctions. Chinese and Russian banks are already working together to evade financial sanctions. Russia is turning to China for its commodity exports. As the two economies become increasingly interdependent, U.S. officials this week warned Beijing not to undermine U.S. technology export restrictions on Russia.

As long as the West deludes itself into thinking China might be a constructive player on Ukraine, a more realistic approach to the Xi-Putin alliance won’t be possible. That’s why lawmakers are trying to pass legislation imposing secondary sanctions on countries such as China that might help Russia out of this economic jam.

Although the Ukraine-Taiwan analogy is imperfect, there’s little doubt Xi is eyeing the result of the Ukraine war while weighing whether the West has the will to defend Taiwan. And if China does attack the island democracy, there’s little doubt Putin will reciprocate Xi’s current friendship.

“The true nature of the relationship is that they are partners in this new era of authoritarian aggression,” Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) told me. “They are increasingly willing to use aggressive actions, up to and including military invasions, and they are increasingly working together on these goals.”

Sullivan and Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.) have introduced bills that would spell out new sanctions and other consequences for China if it attacks Taiwan. One of the lessons of the Ukraine war should be that vague sanctions threats are insufficient to deter aggression of a paranoid dictator with historical grievances.

Given Putin’s Ukraine invasion, the idea the West could work with Russia against China is now being rightfully discarded as nonsense. The notion of working with China against Russia is equally naive. We can’t split the Russia-China team, so we will just have to work harder to stop them both.

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