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Ukraine says China is in Russia's pocket. It may be the other way around.

Tom Porter   

Ukraine says China is in Russia's pocket. It may be the other way around.
  • A tussle over a new gas-pipeline deal has exposed the power imbalance between Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin.
  • Russia's Putin is dependent on the pipeline amid international sanctions.

At the Shangri-La conference in Singapore on Sunday, Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy accused China of doing Russia's bidding in seeking to disrupt a peace conference scheduled for June.

"Regrettably, this is unfortunate that such a big, independent, powerful country as China is an instrument in the hands of Putin," Zelenskyy said, referring to Russia's president.

Zelenskyy's remarks highlight the increasing interdependence between Russia and China, which has a vastly bigger economy, in the wake of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

But the relationship has been lopsided. Rather than simply doing Putin's bidding, China's leader, Xi Jinping, has so far largely had Russia in his hands.

In the wake of its Ukraine invasion, Russia has been increasingly isolated on the world stage, but China has stepped in, providing vital economic and diplomatic support. The US says China has also been providing military support in the form of dual-use components for Russia's military industry.

A Financial Times report on Monday included important new details about the underlying power dynamic of the relationship, saying the reason a massive new gas-pipeline deal between Russia and China had stalled was that China was driving a hard bargain.

Sources told the FT that China had asked to get the gas at the same heavily subsidized rates as in Russia and would commit to buying only a small fraction of the pipeline's annual output of 50 billion cubic meters.

It's bad news for Russian President Vladimir Putin, with the Russian gas industry having been badly impacted by sanctions and increasingly dependent on exports to non-Western countries, notably China.

China's leader, Xi, has exploited the power imbalance in the China-Russia relationship. He's brokered influence in the Central Asian Republics, which have traditionally been part of Russia's sphere of influence, and found a huge new market in Russia for Chinese exports such as vehicles.

But Xi is also increasingly dependent on his wager of a Russian victory in Ukraine coming good.

And he's still keen to help Russia's leader, with the FT reporting that boycotting the peace conference was one of the requests Putin made to Xi when the leaders met in May.

China is undergoing a serious economic downturn, and its support for Russia is imperiling its ties with wealthy Western economies, which its major businesses depend upon.

If Xi comes out of the Ukraine war with little to show, then his credibility and bid to assert China as the world's major power will be seriously dented.

And that's likely enough to ensure China will continue to do Russia favors.

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