The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

With Russia visit, Xi pursues effort to upend U.S.-led global order

Russia's Vladimir Putin, left, and China's Xi Jinping in Beijing in February 2022. Xi is expected to travel to Moscow in coming weeks. (Aleksey Druzhinin/Kremlin/Sputnik/Reuters)
7 min

Fresh off a legislative congress where he cemented his vision for governing China, Xi Jinping turned to how he would create a better world order. It would be based on mutual respect, tolerance and equality — and China would be its natural leader, he told heads of political parties for an array of countries, including Russia and South Africa, Nicaragua and East Timor.

“Chinese-style modernization does not follow the old path of colonial plunder or the hegemony of strong countries,” Xi told them in a video call Wednesday, sitting at a desk surrounded by Chinese and Communist Party flags.

“The world does not need another Cold War,” he said, announcing his new concept — the “global civilization initiative,” a set of lofty guiding principles for a “new type of international relations” that China is building.

Xi’s comments were a clear rebuke of the United States — and a reflection of the harder tack he is taking as he ramps up China’s diplomatic efforts with an expected visit to Russia.

President Vladimir Putin said in December that he had invited Xi for a state visit in the spring. That trip could happen as soon as next week, Reuters reported Monday.

When asked whether Xi is planning a visit to Russia, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said Tuesday he did not have any information he could share “at the moment.” “China and Russia have maintained close communication on all levels,” he said.

Xi is expected to have a phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky after that trip, according to the Wall Street Journal. It would be their first conversation since the war began.

This comes after China brokered an agreement to resume diplomatic ties between longtime rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran after a series of secret meetings held in Beijing, an announcement that surprised the Biden administration. On Monday, President Biden said he expected to have a call with Xi soon.

The image of China as a peacemaker and arbiter gives Xi a further boost. Newly empowered in his precedent-breaking third term, he is trying to counter what he sees as an American effort to contain Beijing by proposing an alternative global system that accommodates Chinese interests. Under Beijing’s leadership, he says, countries would not need to choose sides in a battle between autocracy and democracy.

“China realizes it needs to create something new. It needs to create new space for China that redefines China’s role in the world and hopefully redefines the world system,” said Yun Sun, director of the China program at the Stimson Center in Washington, D.C.

As Washington and other Western governments criticize Beijing over its “no limits” partnership with Russia and continued threats against Taiwan, China has tried to argue that it is on the side of peace, that it is the United States and its allies who are destabilizing Europe and the Indo-Pacific.

China’s Xi promises to build ‘great wall of steel’ in rivalry with West

Its latest initiative and outreach is a key part of that.

“What China is trying to signal is that the world is not dependent on the U.S. and its allies and partners,” said Chong Ja Ian, associate professor of political science at the National University of Singapore. “China is trying to be a full-spectrum global player and demonstrate that it too can provide public goods.”

After a government overhaul and leadership reshuffle that gives him even more control over decision-making, Xi is in a stronger position to pursue his goal of an international order more friendly to China.

Last week, he took the unusual step of directly accusing the United States of attempting to “contain, encircle and suppress” China. (In the past, senior leaders have tended to obliquely refer to “some countries.”)

Xi’s vision is encapsulated in a vague policy he announced in April called the “global security concept.” Repeatedly cited by Chinese diplomats, it includes principles like “indivisible security” — the idea that one country’s security cannot come at the cost of another, a concept Moscow has used to justify its invasion of Ukraine.

Since the Iran-Saudi deal Friday, Chinese state media and commentators have reveled in Western surprise at Beijing’s new role as a major power broker and hailed the success as a sign of China’s skill at mediation.

“‘China has facilitated the restoration of diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia.’ For the West, the key word in this news headline is not Iran or Saudi Arabia, but China,” the state-run paper Guancha said in an editorial. “The change of hands of the ‘peacemaker’ is enough to shock all walks of life in the United States.”

In thinly veiled comments aimed at the United States, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said Tuesday that “tactics like ‘bolster one and bash the other’” and “bloc confrontation” never resolve security issues. The official People’s Daily wrote in an editorial that the deal demonstrates the “charm” of Chinese diplomacy.

Shi Yinhong, professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing, said China was trying to “reassert its international influence and prestige” after a difficult few years. “It will be welcomed in some corners of the world, but definitely not in the U.S. and its maritime and Eastern European allies,” Shi said.

But as Xi travels to Russia, the limits of China’s mediation skills may soon become apparent. Beijing has a short track record in conflict mediation and few successes to point to. Iran and Saudi Arabia were in talks for years and had previously expressed an eagerness to reconcile — key conditions that are lacking when it comes to Ukraine and Russia.

“China’s ability to identify and capitalize on a diplomatic opportunity in the Middle East does not signify that it is either a ready or capable mediator in the Ukraine-Russia conflict,” said Amanda Hsiao, senior China analyst at the International Crisis Group.

A year later, China blames U.S. ‘hegemony’ — not Russia — for war in Ukraine

In February, on the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion, Beijing released a 12-point proposal for ending the war that included calls for peace talks, a cease-fire and an end to “unilateral sanctions” but no demands for Russian withdrawal from Ukrainian territory. Zelensky said he welcomed China’s involvement but would wait for more details.

“There is nothing particularly new in the content of this document, and everyone knows this,” said Wan Qingsong, associate professor at the Center for Russian Studies at East China Normal University in Shanghai.

For Xi, the proposal along with his visit to Russia may be less about results and more about shoring up support among other countries that also feel left out of a U.S.-dominated international system.

“It’s important to understand it’s not just about Europe, Russia and the U.S., but also about all the other countries out there,” said Alicja Bachulska, a Warsaw-based policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “All these decisions and communications from Beijing are not only aimed at the so-called West but also the global south.”

When he visits Moscow, Xi will hold the upper hand over Putin.

Russia depends on China for much of its imports, including many high-tech items like semiconductors that can be used in both military and civilian applications.

According to government data, exports from China to Russia rose by nearly 13 percent to top $76 billion in 2022. Observers expect the two leaders will discuss expanding trade flows, including increased oil and gas sales and possibly a gas pipeline.

“China has all of the leverage it wants, and its leverage grows as we speak,” said Alexander Gabuev, an expert on Russia-China relations at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

For Xi, a trip to Russia is also a show of defiance — in line with what may have been Beijing’s broader aims for orchestrating talks last week between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

“It shows the world, it shows the U.S. that ‘you can make your advancements, but we can, too,’” said Sun, of the Stimson Center. They’re saying, she said: “We have our alternative theaters, theaters that you are retreating from.”

Vic Chiang in Taipei and Lyric Li in Seoul contributed to this report.