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China sees itself as a mediator in the Russia-Ukraine war, but many nations disagree


China's president has arrived in Moscow. Xi Jinping has not traveled much in recent years, but he's visiting an important strategic partner and friend. They will surely discuss the war in Ukraine, where China has called for peace but also supported Russia in various ways. Yun Sun has spent years trying to figure out what Xi is thinking. She's been to China many times and directs the China Program at the Stimson Center, a think tank here in Washington. Welcome.

YUN SUN: Thank you, Steve. Good morning.

INSKEEP: As best you can tell, what does Xi want out of Moscow?

YUN SUN: I think this trip is primarily framed as one that will deepen the ties and the relationship between Beijing and Moscow. So Ukraine war is going to be mentioned, but I don't think it will be the primary goal that Xi Jinping is trying to achieve here. So based on what we have seen so far, China and Russia are going to increase their economic cooperation, and they're going to increase and deepen their cooperation in international affairs. So I will say economics and politics are the two primary goals here.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about those two things then. When we talk about China, the world's second-largest economy, cooperating with Russia, which has a devastated economy - they're a big energy producer - how can they cooperate in ways that they're not already doing?

YUN SUN: Well, in 2022, the bilateral trade increased by about 30% between China and Russia. And I think the Chinese see a greater potential for this trade to grow even further. And between China and Russia, their energy cooperation has been enhanced in the past couple of years. And there are speculations that Russia wants to ink and further more energy cooperation deals with China, both in terms of trade and in terms of infrastructure between the two countries.

INSKEEP: Can China do enough that Russia doesn't have to worry nearly as much about the sanctions that have been imposed by other countries in the last year?

YUN SUN: Well, it depends on how you look at the trade boost about - the increased trade definitely creates more revenue for Russia, right? And this revenue can be used in the war in Ukraine. But on the other hand, China is very unlikely to make up for all the economic losses that Russia has suffered from the international sanction, especially the international financial sanction and trade sanction. So in that aspect, I don't think China will be able to make up for it. But it is acting as an important substitute.

INSKEEP: I want to pursue the other point you made. You said they want to cooperate in international affairs. When you widen the lens a little bit and think about these two countries as not quite formal allies, but strategic partners, what is it they want to do in the world?

YUN SUN: Well, they want to align their positions to counter what they perceive to be the hegemony of the United States. That's the geopolitical instinct of both countries, and that is the overwhelming driver of China's behavior to align closely with Russia even today. So they both look at what they want to see as a reform for the international order. And they both want to see what they call multilateralism of the international affairs, which means that U.S. does not make all the calls.

INSKEEP: Is Xi Jinping's view, essentially, I may not love this war in Iraq; it's not going very well; it's kind of embarrassing, but I need this friend?

YUN SUN: I think, yes. That basically summarizes his position. And also, remember, with the Indo-Pacific strategy and the U.S.-China strategic competition, the Chinese have to think that when U.S. is not distracted by the war in Ukraine, U.S. will be - completely devote its - all attention to countering China. And that's even a bigger problem for China.

INSKEEP: Really interesting. The U.S. is lining up allies against China, and China is grabbing at least one. Yun Sun of the Stimson Center. Thanks so much.

YUN SUN: Thank you, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.