October 20, 2023
IntelBrief: Xi and Putin Meet Against the Backdrop of Conflict in the Middle East
With the Middle East on the brink of a possible region-wide conflict, Chinese President Xi Jinping was notably absent from the war’s ongoing diplomatic efforts as he convened world leaders in Beijing on Wednesday for the opening of the third Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation. The international gathering commemorates and showcases Xi’s signature foreign policy effort, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), as it enters into its second decade. Xi can use the diplomatic congregation to pursue important relationships, especially with Russia’s Vladimir Putin, while also advancing the People’s Republic of China's (PRC) domestic and foreign policy interests. On Wednesday, Russia and China pushed the UN Security Council to vote on a resolution proposed by Brazil calling for a humanitarian pause in Gaza while also condemning Hamas. The United States, which had been pushing for more time to craft the language, vetoed the proposal. Russia and the United Kingdom abstained from the vote, while the twelve other members of the council voted in favor of the resolution. This cast Washington in a negative light, as it suggests it is seeking to protect Israel over advancing humanitarian concerns.
Juxtaposing the ongoing chaos in the Middle East, Xi, in his keynote speech, highlighted cooperation among the more than 150 countries and over 30 international organizations that have signed Belt and Road cooperation documents. He went on to note that the cooperation has “expanded from physical connectivity to institutional connectivity.” While Xi outlined the milestones and benefits of the BRI, other issues loomed large over the gathering, such as the slowdown in the PRC’s foreign loans, the substantial debt facing some nations participating in BRI, and the PRC’s own domestic economic woes. In the past decade, the BRI has undergone some changes while also facing Western criticism. While the BRI was once synonymous with high-profile infrastructure projects, more recent investments have focused on digital connectivity (often dubbed the Digital Silk Road), standards and governance norms, people-to-people exchanges, and sustainability. These areas of focus were highlighted in a BRI white paper published last week by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
The conference also made evident that European Union (EU) member states have become more skeptical of BRI, with Hungary’s Viktor Orban being the only head of state from the EU to attend. Last month, reports emerged that Italy is looking to withdraw from the BRI. However, the Taliban on Thursday announced intentions to join the Belt and Road Initiative after China last month became the first country to appoint an ambassador to Kabul since the group’s takeover of Afghanistan. Much criticism and skepticism of BRI are rooted in suspicions of the United States, EU countries, and others that BRI functions as a tool of influence for the PRC. Fiscal concerns, as well as those related to environmental sustainability and corruption, have also been voiced. However, the attendance of this year’s forum, the rhetoric of Xi’s opening speech, and the recently released white paper on BRI signal that Beijing is re-orienting towards the Global South as the future of the BRI as relations with the West have deteriorated notably.
The “no limits partnership” between Russia and the PRC was on full display during the first day of the Belt and Road Forum. In Putin’s speech, he praised the BRI and his “dear friend” Xi. The two leaders also met for three hours on the sidelines of the conference, discussing global trade investments, regional cooperation, emerging industries, as well as the current conflict in the Middle East. Read-outs and speeches signaled PRC-Russian cooperation in areas related to the Arctic and key resources for emerging technologies, including energy. Putin invited investments in the Northern Sea Route, a shipping route that connects the eastern and western parts of the Arctic Ocean, and said it could be open for year-round navigation as early as next year. This comes amid increasing competition, militarization, and efforts to take advantage of resources in the Arctic as icecaps melt due to climate change, opening up new shipping lanes and resource access. The CCP has identified the Arctic as an area of key strategic importance and has declared its intention for the PRC to become a “Polar Great Power” by 2030. The Chinese read-out of the bilateral meeting between Xi and Putin also touted the China-Mongolia-Russia natural gas pipeline project, also known as the Power of Siberia-2 pipeline. Since Russia’s full invasion of Ukraine in 2022 led to the implementation of Moscow has had to re-orient its trade and energy exports to Asia. The Power of Siberia-2 pipeline would allow Moscow to increase energy exports to the PRC, but thus far, Beijing has taken its time in finalizing an agreement. China will likely take advantage of its leverage over Russia, which sees China as an essential consumer of its energy exports, to negotiate a stronger position for itself. According to the readout, Xi expressed hopes that there will be progress regarding the pipeline “as soon as possible.”
With fears that the Israel-Hamas war could escalate into a regional conflict that could draw in Iranian-backed proxies and perhaps even the United States, Xi’s diplomatic opportunities at the Belt and Road Forum help fulfill the CCP’s desire to portray itself as a responsible global player and to craft global governance norms according to the CCP’s vision. Since Hamas’ October 7 attack on Israel, Beijing has kept a low profile, generating criticism from Israel and the West over its failure to condemn the attack as terrorism. In recent years, Xi and the CCP have attempted to poise themselves as a key peacemaker in the Middle East while enjoying good relations with key players, including Saudi Arabia, Israel, Iran, and Türkiye. The most notable achievement came this year with the Beijing-brokered tentative normalization deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran. While Xi may use the war in Gaza and its potential regional reverberations to cement China’s image as a peacemaker, Xi and the PRC have been noticeably absent from the diplomatic efforts to prevent the conflict from escalating further. Instead, the United States has attempted to serve as the key diplomatic force. To Moscow and Beijing’s “no limits partnership,” however, the current security landscape in the Middle East serves as a way to distract Washington from other flashpoints, like Ukraine.