China has voiced support for Russia after a short-lived insurrection posed the gravest challenge to the 23-year rule of Vladimir Putin, a close partner of Chinese leader Xi Jinping in his push for a new world order and strategic alignment against the United States.
The brief mutiny by the Wagner mercenary group reverberated beyond Russia, including in neighboring China, where Xi has forged a strong rapport with fellow authoritarian Putin thanks to their mutual distrust of the West – a strategic bond that has only deepened in recent years, even after Moscow’s stumbling invasion of Ukraine.
“There’s probably some scrambling around in Beijing to figure out what this means for Putin going forward, especially if it means a more fractured Russia or a Putin who is very much weakened,” said Chong Ja Ian, an associate professor of political science at the National University of Singapore.
Beijing finally broke its silence late on Sunday night, backing Russia with a terse statement that brushed off the incident as “Russia’s internal affair.”
“As Russia’s friendly neighbor and comprehensive strategic partner of coordination for the new era, China supports Russia in maintaining national stability and achieving development and prosperity,” a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said in the online statement.
Beijing’s carefully crafted public comment came well after the brief and chaotic mutiny had dissipated, with warlord Yevgeny Prigozhin agreeing on Saturday to pull back his fighters in a deal with the Kremlin that would reportedly see him enter into exile in Belarus.
It also came after Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Andrey Rudenko flew to Beijing to meet with Chinese officials on Sunday, where the two sides reaffirmed their close partnership and political trust.
China’s Foreign Minister Qin Gang and Rudenko exchanged views on “Sino-Russian relations and international and regional issues of common concern,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry said in a one-line statement posted on its website, with a photo showing the pair walking side by side while smiling at the previously unannounced meeting.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry said Rudenko also held “scheduled consultations” with China’s Deputy Foreign Minister Ma Zhaoxu.
“The Chinese side expressed support for the efforts of the leadership of the Russian Federation to stabilize the situation in the country in connection with the events of June 24, and reaffirmed its interest in strengthening the unity and further prosperity of Russia,” the Russian ministry said in a statement.
According to the Chinese readout, Ma told Rudenko that the mutual political trust and cooperation between China and Russia had grown continuously under the leadership of Xi and Putin. Ma also pledged to safeguard the “common interests” of both countries under what he called a “complex and grim international situation.”
Xi, China’s most authoritarian and powerful leader in decades, has met Putin in person 40 times since coming to power in 2012 – far more than any other world leader.
In recent years, the world’s two most powerful autocratic leaders have brought their countries even closer together in an ambition to challenge what they see as a world older inflicted by “American hegemony.”
The pair declared a friendship with “no limits” in February 2022, shortly before Putin launched his war on Ukraine. Since then, China has refused to condemn the invasion and instead provided much-needed diplomatic and economic support for Russia, a position that has further soured its relations with Western nations, especially in Europe.
But as the devastating war drags on, Beijing’s costly alignment has been compounded by fears that the protracted conflict could ultimately destabilize Putin’s grip on power.
Nothing has accentuated those fears more than the extraordinary show of defiance by Wagner’s insurrection, which shattered the veneer of total control Putin has struggled to maintain more than 16 months into the invasion.
A civil war in Russia seems to have been avoided, for now, something Beijing will greet with a sigh of relief.
Internal conflict within Russia not only risks the stability of its 4,300-kilometer (2,672-mile) border with China, it would also make Moscow a less useful partner for Beijing to counter the US – or worse, it could give rise to a new regime more open to the West and less friendly to China.
Wen-Ti Sung, a political scientist with the Australian National University’s Taiwan Studies Program, said Beijing is likely worried about the weakening of Putin.
“China likely fears a domino effect: that if Russia falls, China may be next,” he said. “For China, Putinist Russia is useful cushion both geopolitically and ideologically, especially during the era of Biden administration’s ‘value-based alignment’ rhetoric.”
Social media buzzing, but state media curated
That sense of political symbiosis is palpable in Chinese discussions about the Russian upheaval, which have dominated China’s tightly controlled social media over the weekend, with many citing the Chinese idiom: “If the lips are gone, the teeth will be cold”.
Chinese state media, meanwhile, sought to stress continued stability within Russia and portray Putin in a positive light, Sung said.
Videos of Wagner fighters occupying military facilities in Rostov-on-Don, home to the headquarters of Russia’s Southern Military District, and departing the city to the cheers of local residents were broadcast Saturday around the world.
But those kind of scenes were notably absent from China’s most-watched news program on state broadcaster CCTV.
Instead, the prime time program aired footage showing traffic moving calmly outside the Kremlin and tourists posing for photos near a pair of security officers, as well as a determined Putin vowing retribution for those “on a path to treason” in his national address.
On Sunday, the same prime time show displayed videos of Wagner tanks and armored vehicles retreating orderly, escorted by police vehicles.
The Wagner insurrection “contradicts the narrative of Putin as a strong leader who enjoys full support of his people, and is here for the long haul as China’s global partner of choice,” Sung said.
“If Putin’s rule is unstable, then supporting him is bad business,” he said.
In recent months, Beijing has sought to portray itself as a peace broker in an effort to repair relations with Europe – but it has also continued to deepen ties with Moscow.
In March, Xi and Putin made a sweeping affirmation of their alignment across a host of issues – and shared mistrust of the United States – during the Chinese leader’s first visit to Russia since the invasion.
“Right now there are changes – the likes of which we haven’t seen for 100 years – and we are the ones driving these changes together,” Xi told Putin as they bid farewell at the door of the Kremlin.
Three months on, the co-driving force for Xi’s vision appears to be at his weakest in decades, after Wagner’s mutiny punctured his infallible image and exposed cracks in his rule.
Putin’s diminished status was not lost on even the most hawkish and nationalistic Chinese scholars and commentators.
“Although Russia’s nightmare came to an end temporarily yesterday, this incident will definitely hurt Russia and Putin’s image,” Jin Canrong, an international relations professor at Renmin University in Beijing, wrote Sunday on Weibo, where the Wagner insurrection was a top trending topic over the weekend.
Jin, a government adviser known for his fiercely anti-US rhetoric, described the rapid turn of events as “surreal.”
“It is very dangerous for a country to support and keep such a large non-state military group – this ‘lesion’ may break out at any time,” he wrote.
Commenting on Twitter Saturday before Prigozhin aborted his insurrection, Hu Xijin, the former editor of the nationalist Global Times, said the “armed rebellion has made the Russian political situation cross the tipping point.”
“Regardless of his outcome, Russia cannot return to the country it was before the rebellion anymore,” he said in the Tweet, which was later deleted.
Source : CNN