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Xi and Putin

Will Xi cast his lot in with Putin?

Xi with Putin: facing a high-stakes decision. Alexei Druzhinin/Sputnik/AFP/Getty

Xi Jinping calls Vladimir Putin his “best friend”, says Gideon Rachman in the FT. We’ll soon see. The Russian leader is in urgent need of help, bogged down in Ukraine and desperately short of ammo. China’s response will “say a lot about how it sees the future of the world”. Supplying Moscow with weapons would show that Beijing believes intensified rivalry with the US is “unavoidable – and perhaps desirable”. The decision not to help would suggest that China sees tensions as manageable, and that “globalisation can be saved”. The stakes really are that high. As former Chinese army colonel Zhou Bo wrote last week: “If Beijing takes Moscow’s side in the conflict, then we are already in the dawn of the third world war.”

The US believes there is a serious chance Xi will do exactly that. The worst-case scenario for him is the fall of Putin and the rise of a pro-Western leader in the Kremlin. But even a humiliated and weakened Russia would make the US look “resurgent” and China more isolated. Hawks in Beijing also argue that if Moscow were defeated, “America would turn on China”. And if the US has to keep “pouring military resources into Ukraine”, it will have less available to defend, say, Taiwan. Given how inflammatory openly arming Russia would be, Beijing may attempt to funnel arms covertly via Iran or North Korea. But that would just be a circuitous route to the same destination: “direct confrontation with America”.