In Beijing, the ripple effects of a move that may cost China dearly are now sinking in, say the officials and advisers. Some officials say they are fearful of the consequences of getting so close to Russia at the expense of other relationships—especially when Russian aggression against Ukraine is isolating Moscow in much of the world.
Already, many politicians from Washington to Brussels have grouped Beijing together with Moscow as a new “axis”—a term giving Western alliances more reason to disengage from China and form closer ties among themselves.
“Elevating the partnership with Russia on the eve of its invasion of Ukraine was a massive foreign-policy blunder by Xi,” said Jude Blanchette, a China specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank focused on international relations. “The cost is very real for China and is exposing the limits of Xi’s policy.”
Just a year ago, Mr. Xi was making remarks such as “The East is rising, and the West is in decline,” as China’s economy roared back while much of the world was mired in Covid-19 lockdowns. Beijing was trying to shape and inhabit a role for itself as a leader on combating climate change and a benevolent sponsor of developing nations, even as it was ramping up nationalistic rhetoric, including around its claims to Taiwan.
This year, during which Mr. Xi is expected to break with precedent and seek a third term in power, he is facing an economic downturn at home that is largely a result of his own policies—and a geopolitical shift in which China has placed itself on one side of a gulf that has almost all of the rest of the world on the other side.
What Beijing will do next depends on how hard the U.S. will push sanctions on Russia, say the foreign-policy advisers. Mr. Xi also likely will continue to maintain his partnership with Mr. Putin, as Beijing sees little chance of improvement in its U.S. ties and needs to keep Russia around as its most important strategic collaborator even if it isn’t an outright ally. But that will require China to continue to straddle an increasingly difficult diplomatic position.
With the resistance shown by the Ukranian People and social unrest by anti-war demonstrators back home in Russia, Xi has to be nervous and thinking, “This is not good, not good at all.”
As soon as Mr. Putin left Beijing after the Feb. 4 declaration, China’s top leadership disappeared from public view, huddling to form a response to the developing Ukraine crisis. More than a week later, they emerged to embark on a series of statements that showed a desire to dial back or clarify Beijing’s embrace of the Kremlin.
Since the Russian troops marched into Ukraine on Feb. 24, China has been walking what many foreign-policy experts call a diplomatic tightrope. It is locked into having to help Russia and has little interest in seeing Moscow collapse economically, while it is trying to stick to its foreign-policy principles around sovereignty and attempting to prevent its relations with the U.S. and Europe from completely collapsing.
Beijing has refrained from coming to Moscow’s aid in a significant way. China is taking steps to buy Russian farm and energy products. But it is complying with the more damaging financial sanctions the U.S. has imposed on Russia, for fear of losing access to the dollar-dominated global trading system, say some Chinese bankers. They say their default position is to comply with the sanctions unless higher-ups tell them otherwi