Putin calls Xi for his 69th birthday

Foreign Affairs

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin held a bilateral phone call, which ended with two different takeaways over the war on Ukraine.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing, on Feb. 4, 2022. Xinhua/Li Tao.

Xí Jìnpíng 习近平 celebrated his 69th birthday by holding a bilateral phone call with Vladimir Putin.

The two sides presented different interpretations of the same phone call: The Kremlin implied that Beijing supported Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, while Beijing’s own statement treaded cautiously around the Ukraine issue.

Similarly, Chinese state media emphasized Russia’s support on “so-called issues” regarding Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and Taiwan; Moscow’s readout of the call didn’t directly or obliquely reference these matters. Despite different interpretations and emphases, the call is significant: Xi appears to be at least contemplating more overt and substantive support for Putin.

Moswcow says Beijing sees Ukraine invasion as legitimate

The Kremlin’s version:

Vladimir Putin laid out his principled assessment of the situation in Ukraine and the tasks being tackled during the special military operation. The President of China noted the legitimacy of Russia’s actions to protect fundamental national interests in the face of challenges to its security created by external forces.

Xinhua’s readout:

The two heads of state also exchanged views on the Ukraine issue. Xi emphasized that China has always independently assessed the situation on the basis of the historical context and the merits of the issue, and actively promoted world peace and the stability of the global economic order.

All parties should push for a proper settlement of the Ukraine crisis in a responsible manner, Xi said, adding that China for this purpose will continue to play its due role.

Russia and “China’s internal affairs”

While Russia sidestepped Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, Xinhua included the following discussion: “Since the start of the year, the practical cooperation between Russia and China has been developing steadily, [Putin] said, adding that Russia supports the Global Security Initiative proposed by the Chinese side, and opposes any force to interfere with China’s internal affairs using so-called issues regarding Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, among others, as an excuse.”

Rashomon phone calls

Xi and Putin, once again, had different perceptions of the same event. These Rashomon-like phone calls are not without precedent: In September 2021, the P.R.C. claimed that Putin “unswervingly” supported Beijing’s position on Taiwan, Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and the South China Sea. The Russian side’s readout didn’t mention these matters, however, and the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson later clarified Russia’s position on South China Sea disputes and implicitly rebuked Beijing.

While Moscow and Beijing don’t appear to be reading from the same hymnal on their most recent call, it’s unlikely that either side is fabricating elements of the call. Putin may very well have reiterated Russian support for Beijing’s positions on Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and Taiwan; similarly, Xi could have voiced more direct support for Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

Some other key takeaways

  • Beijing didn’t imply Russian support for China’s position on the South China Sea, likely due to the bilateral September 2021 incident
  • The Chinese side didn’t characterize bilateral relations with Russia, in either the Chinese or English-language versions, as reaching “unprecedented highs” (前所未有的高水平). This is notable, as the Kremlin claimed, “The presidents stated that Russian-Chinese relations were at an all-time high.”
  • Chinese officials haven’t characterized the relationship as reaching “unprecedented highs” for several months, almost certainly in hopes of limiting reputational damage to Beijing from Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.
  • Beijing remains concerned about secondary sanctions and reputational damage. Still, Xi’s phone call with Putin could signal that Beijing is contemplating providing more visible, material support to Moscow.