Xi's the Boss
MOSCOW – Despite their shared communist ideology, China and the Soviet Union were hardly close friends and committed partners during the Cold War. Petulant competitiveness defined the irrelationship, as they squabbled over Mongolia and Manchuria and jostled for leadership of the communist world. A similar dynamic was reflected in Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent visit to Moscow, with one crucial difference.
Of course, there was plenty of collaboration between the USSR and China. Both backed Kim Il-sung’s communists in the Korean War, and the Chinese helped to uphold the Kremlin’s East European sphere of influence. (Albania was loyal to China, while Josip Broz Tito’s Yugoslavia used China as leverage to extract concessions and support from the Kremlin.) Moreover, Soviet scientists and engineers worked in China, with the Soviets agreeing in 1957 to help the People’s Republic acquire atomic capabilities.
But China and the USSR were not quite equal partners. Though Mao Zedong viewed himself as Joseph Stalin’s peer, leading the world’s peasant communists as Stalin led its proletarians, behind closed doors Stalin reportedly called Mao a “caveman Marxist” and a “talentless partisan.” When Mao visited Moscow for Stalin’s birthday celebrations in 1949, he was treated as just another guest.
Stalin’s behavior enraged Mao. But, in the 1940s and 1950s, China depended on Soviet assistance, so Mao had to bend the knee, at least a little.
When my great-grandfather, Nikita Khrushchev, took over as Soviet premier following Stalin’s death in 1953, Mao paid back for Stalin’s disdain – and then some. On his return from his trip to Beijing in 1958, Khrushchev talked incessantly about how unpleasant his experience had been. He bristled at Mao’s demand that the Soviet Union fulfill its promise to help build China’s nuclear-weapons program, noting that Mao had not done “a damn thing” for the Soviets, “not even allowing ships and planes to stop on his territory” over concerns about sovereignty. “Once,” Khrushchev recalled, the Chinese “seized a brand-new American missile,” but Mao “who, like Stalin, was paranoid about everything, including his shadow,” didn’t let Soviet engineers anywhere near it.
Khrushchev also resented Mao’s invitation for a Beijing “summit in a pool.” Worse, Mao, believing that his Soviet counterpart would be at a disadvantage in such a setting (even though Khrushchev was as capable a swimmer as his host), began to assess Chinese and Soviet military endeavors. Mao asked, “With our territories put together as almost a continent, why not invade France, Italy, and West Germany in one fell swoop?” Khrushchev fired back, “It is quality, not quantity, that counts.”
Despite getting in some jabs, Mao never put the Soviet premier on the ropes. Khrushchev – as imperialist as all Kremlin leaders – still had the good sense not to create conditions for nuclear war. He unilaterally canceled the atomic deal with the “bat crazy” – and now furious – Mao in 1959. The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, when Khrushchev again had enough sense to step back from the brink of a devastating confrontation, further enraged Mao, who thought that nuclear arms were wasted on the Kremlin. “What’s the point of having rockets when you are not going to use them?” he demanded. In turn, Khrushchev likened him to a “pair of worn-out galoshes.”
Today, Russia and China are again united by a kind of shared ideology, centered on opposition to Western influence over global affairs, and are rapidly strengthening ties. In 2022, bilateral trade reached a record $190 billion, compared to $147 billion in the previous year. In the first two months of 2023, deliveries of Chinese goods to Russia increased by almost 25% year-on-year. And China is now the main market for Russian oil and gas.
But, while closer ties may benefit both sides, China is calling the shots. Even if Xi did not have the upper hand before Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his war of choice in Ukraine, he certainly has it now, after countless Russian deaths, far-reaching economic sanctions, and an indictment of Putin on war crimes charges by the International Criminal Court (ICC).
So, when Xi arrived in Moscow last week, he was standing tall, both literally – towering over Putin by five inches (12.7 centimeters) – and figuratively. Yes, he celebrated the strength of the bilateral relationship. But, wearing his habitual enigmatic smile, he carried himself with an air of superiority, whereas Putin’s expressions appeared strained. As desperate as Putin may be to project an image of strength, he knows that he cannot risk alienating China, and he treated Xi as Mao (the “Great Helmsman”) wished to be treated.
Yet the summit did not bring any great breakthrough. Xi presented a peace plan for Ukraine, but both he and Putin acknowledged that neither Ukraine nor its Western supporters would accept it. And while plans were made to deepen bilateral economic cooperation further, and Russia pledged to increase natural-gas supplies to China significantly, Xi refrained from fulfilling Putin’s main wish for the summit: committing to funding the Power of Siberia 2 pipeline that would carry gas to China via Mongolia.
Some believe that Xi’s visit to Moscow was intended to lend legitimacy to Putin’s regime in the wake of the ICC indictment. It is more likely, however, that Xi visited Moscow to show – not just to Russia but also to the United States – who is in charge. By throwing Putin a lifeline, Xi has further empowered China, which is now better-positioned than ever to influence the international order. Mao would be pleased.
Nina L. Khrushcheva, Professor of International Affairs at The New School, is the co-author (with Jeffrey Tayler) of In Putin’s Footsteps: Searching for the Soul of an Empire Across Russia’s Eleven Time Zones (St. Martin’s Press, 2019).
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2023.
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