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Russia-China relations

Has the Xi-Putin “bromance” peaked?

Xi with Putin in March: not so friendly now? Pavel Byrkin/AFP/Getty

When Xi Jinping first came to power a decade ago, says Ryan Hass in The New York Times, he saw Vladimir Putin as a “strong leader” who shared his hatred of the “Western-dominated international system”. They bonded over “mutual paranoia” about threats to their rule, and swapped “best practices” for imposing control at home, while making the world more accommodating to their authoritarian impulses. Xi used to refer to Putin as his “best, most intimate friend”. But after more than a year of Moscow’s “disastrous” war effort, Beijing is finally seeing Russia for what it is: a nuclear state with a shaky leader, right on China’s border. In other words, the “bromance” that caused so much stress in the West has “probably peaked”.

If Xi wants to achieve his strategic goal of “surpassing US strength around the world”, he will need to “rebalance his foreign policy” to make up for Putin’s vulnerabilities. The good news for the West is that this likely means beefing up efforts to bring an end to the war in Ukraine. The conflict initially offered China hope that it would divert America’s focus away from Asia, leaving Beijing free to “expand its sway”. Instead, Washington has pulled closer to its Asian allies along China’s periphery. And in Europe, China’s image has been “battered” by its support for Russia: European business sentiment has “soured”, foreign direct investment has slowed, and trans-Atlantic coordination has tightened. All of this hurts, giving Beijing a motive to “exercise its unique leverage” over Moscow and urge an end to the fighting.