Towards a New World Order: Biden-Xi Talks on Russia

The US President Joe Biden spoke to his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping on the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine. The video call which reportedly ran for more than two hours comes at a crucial juncture as many experts claim this event marks the dawn of a new world order.


The Russian invasion of Ukraine has brought the United States and China face to face on yet another issue.

Washington has left no stone unturned to ensure Russia suffers for invading its ally Ukraine, whether economically or diplomatically. It has not just imposed a fresh series of crushing sanctions on Moscow and those who would engage in any military or economic activity with it, but has also built a coalition against it by getting its allies and neutral nations to support the Resolution against Russia in the United Nations Security Council.

China, on the other hand, has presented an ambivalent stance. While abstaining from voting against Russia and blaming the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) for their expansionist activities in Eastern Europe which threatened Russia’s ‘legitimate security interests’ as the main reason behind the invasion, Beijing referred to the Russian act as an “invasion” instead of using the term “special military operation” put forth by the Kremlin. The use of the term “invasion” subtly criticises the Russian act as it goes against the spirit of the United Nations Charter which China claims to faithfully uphold.

Then, it subtly shifted its stance when Foreign Minister and State Councillor Wang Yi spoke to the Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba on call where he described Russian invasion as a “war”.

Following Russia’s oustal from international banking network SWIFT, China has put on halt all activities of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and National Development Bank  (NDB) concerning Russia,  while avoiding openly criticising Moscow.

A Crucial Juncture

The Biden-Xi interaction comes at a crucial juncture in international politics which many experts have labelled the beginning of a new international order,  marked not just by the return of Russia as a leading power on the international security front but also the one where authoritarian governments pose a direct threat to liberal democracies. The Russian invasion has also shuddered Europe which since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 has been spared any major turbulence.

Moreover, the Kremlin’s threat to use nuclear weapons if its ‘national interests and security’ is ‘threatened’ has further pushed the world to the edge of a situation with unimaginable consequences.

As Russia continues its invasion of Ukraine, reports have surfaced that it has reached out to China to provide military support, which both Moscow and Beijing have denied.

What was discussed?

In the video call as per the White House Readout of the conversation, Biden outlined Washington’s intentions to take action against Russia and expressed his preference for a diplomatic resolution to the conflict. He also expressed the “implications and consequences” that China might invite if it provides material support to Russia in attacking the Ukrainian civilians.

However, certain details escaped the White House version and found mention in the reportage of Xinhua, the official media of the People’s Republic of China. Xinhua reported that Biden clarified American intentions of not letting tensions between Washington and Beijing escalate into a new Cold War, not to pursue any coalition against China and not to vouch for Taiwan’s independence. He highlighted the importance of communication with China in order to deal with the recent developments.

While supporting the need to communicate with each other, Xi stated that both China and the US need to “shoulder responsibility to the international community”.  He affirmed humanitarian support for Ukraine but also emphasised on the need for Washington and its allies to engage in diplomatic talks with Russia. Xi quoted the Chinese saying “Let he who tied the bell on the tiger take it off” (“解铃还须系铃人”) to subtly criticise Washington for contributing to the build up that led to the  Russian invasion. Even in affirming his support for peace and stability, Xi did not leave Putin aside. He also targeted the sanctions against Moscow by claiming that it would adversely affect the common people.

While both Biden and Xi saw the video meet as a “constructive” development, their diametrically opposite stances could not be concealed.

A “Rock Solid Friendship”

Wang Yi referred to the China-Russia friendship as “rock solid”, stating that the two sides had “very vast” prospects for future cooperation while blaming the West for “adding fuel to the fire” in the “complex” situation in Ukraine. He highlighted Beijing’s readiness to mediate in the process. China has also referred to Russia as its “most important strategic partner”.

Just days before invading Ukraine, Putin visited Beijing for the Winter Olympics amidst a diplomatic boycott from the United States and its allies where he highlighted the importance of the “mutually beneficial energy partnership” that Moscow and Beijing share. He noted that the two were on the course of developing bilateral trade worth $200 billion a year with 65 investments in mining, mineral processing, infrastructure, etc. worth $120 billion already in the pipeline.

Does it mean military help to Moscow?

Not really. Even while standing beside Putin, Xi is unlikely to send troops in his aid and the reasons can broadly be understood as domestic, economic, diplomatic, political and geostrategic considerations.

Domestic opinion has not been in favour of sending troops abroad for issues that do not concern China and its security interests directly and loss of human life in such expeditions is bound to pose a major challenge to the Communist Party leadership.

Economically too, China is bound to suffer if it supports Moscow with troops. Unlike Russia, China has economic investments across the globe which would be adversely affected if sanctions are imposed on it, especially as strict lockdowns amidst a  new surge in Covid cases is bound to slow economic growth. The last thing favourable to Beijing in this situation would be any further  turbulence.

Beijing would suffer diplomatically too. Its image has already been tarnished with allegations of human rights violations and expansionary motives. If it supports Moscow, it would further come under attack not just from the Western countries  but also from nations which have traditionally been neutral. It would take years to rebuild a favourable image in that case.

The invasion comes just ahead of the 20th Party Congress of the Communist Party, an event which has not fared well in the history of Communist Parties, considering it was the 20th Party Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union

(CPSU) when Nikita Khrushchev put forth the agenda for ‘De-Stalinisation’ which sent shockwaves not just within the CPSU but Communist Parties across the world, which continued to  weaken its authority till the demise of the USSR in 1991. It is said that many Chinese politicians of the CCP have voiced their opposition to the Russian invasion. With the Party Congress just around the corner, which Chinese politics experts consider an event when Xi Jinping would get himself elected for a third term, China’s military participation is likely to destabilise many plans and fuel factionalism.

There are geostrategic considerations as well. If Beijing joins the war, chances are high that the US and NATO might not be far behind. The Chinese army, though rapidly modernising, still lags behind the US army in terms of both technological prowess and battlefield experience. A defeat at the hands of the Western forces would not just be humiliating but would also prove to be a drain on financial resources.

What lies ahead?

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has presented both opportunities and challenges for Beijing.

Moscow’s actions pose a direct challenge not just to Washington but the whole liberal democratic order which acts in China’s favour. Moreover, the justification of unilateral invasions on the grounds of securing ‘legitimate security concerns’ aids China’s own claim of unification with Taiwan, in rhetoric at least  if not action,  in which it sees US as a major obstacle.

However, it comes with various challenges as noted above because of which it is not likely that Beijing would help Moscow militarily.

While the video conference between Biden and Xi is a welcome move, the situation demands much more than superficial chats and certainly not sabre rattling. The two must expand diplomatic negotiations with each other and must work actively to install peace.

Cherry Hitkari
Cherry Hitkari
Non-resident Vasey Fellow at Pacific Forum, Hawaii. Cherry Hitkari is an Advisory Board member of 'Tomorrow's People' at Modern Diplomacy. She holds a Masters in East Asian Studies specialising in Chinese Studies and is currently pursuing an advanced diploma in Chinese language at the Department of East Asian Studies, University of Delhi, India.