(CNN) — When Russian President Vladimir Putin met Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Uzbekistan last week, the atmosphere was markedly different from their triumphant meeting in Beijing, weeks before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
There were no more proclamations of their “limitless” friendship declared on the opening day of the Winter Olympics. Instead, Putin admitted that Beijing had “questions and concerns” about his hesitant invasion, in a subtle nod to the limits of China’s support and the growing asymmetry in their relationship.
In the Chinese reading of the meeting, Xi did not even refer to the much-heralded “strategic partnership” between Beijing and Moscow, noted Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing. It was “the most cautious, or the most low-key statement in years” issued by Xi about his strategic relationship, Shi said.
The change in tone is not surprising, given Russia’s series of humiliating defeats on the battlefield, which have exposed Putin’s weakness to friends and foes alike. These setbacks also come at a bad time for Xi, who is just weeks away from seeking a norm-breaking third term at a key political meeting.
Under Xi, China has increasingly tightened ties with Russia. Already facing internal problems stemming from the slowing economy and his unrelenting zero covid policy, Xi needed a projection of strength, not vulnerability, in his personally backed strategic alliance.
Six days later, in a desperate escalation of the devastating war, Putin announced a “partial mobilization” of Russian citizens in a televised address, even raising the specter of the use of nuclear weapons.
It is not known whether Putin discussed his planned escalation with Xi during their last talks, just as it remains an open question whether Putin had told Xi about his planned invasion the last time they met in Beijing.
For some Chinese analysts, Putin’s setbacks and the escalation of the war offered China an opportunity to move away from Russia, a subtle shift that began with Xi’s meeting with Putin.
“China has no choice but to (move) a little further away from Putin because of his escalating war, aggression and annexation, and renewed threat of nuclear war,” said Shi, of Renmin University.
“China has not wanted this inattentive friend (to fight). What may be his fate on the battlefield is not a matter manageable by China at all.”
But others are more skeptical. Putin’s open admission of Beijing’s misgivings does not necessarily signal a rift between the two diplomatic allies; instead, it could be a way for China to gain some diplomatic leeway, especially given how its tacit support for Russia has damaged Beijing’s image in Europe, said Theresa Fallon, director of the Center for Russia Europe Asia Studies in Brussels.
“My impression was that Beijing only wanted a little wiggle room between China and Russia, but I think many have overinterpreted that,” he said. “I think it was more for a European audience.”
“In China’s long-term interests, they have to keep Russia on board,” Fallon added.
The two authoritarian powers are strategically aligned in their attempt to counterbalance the West. Both leaders share a deep suspicion and hostility toward the United States, which they believe is hell-bent on holding down China and Russia. They also share the vision of a new world order, one that is better suited to the interests of their nations and is no longer dominated by the West.
Days after the Xi-Putin meeting, Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev and China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi held security talks in southern China’s Fujian province, pledging to “implement the consensus” reached by their leaders, to deepen their strategic coordination and expand military cooperation.
The two countries also aim to deepen their economic ties, with bilateral trade expected to reach $200 billion “in the near future,” according to Putin.
“I don’t think we’ve seen a major schism open up between Russia and China,” said Brian Hart, a fellow with the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“I see this as a continuation of China trying to walk its pretty fine line on Russia and to make sure that it continues to support Russia to the extent that it can without infringing on its own interests.”
Until now, Beijing has carefully avoided actions that would violate Western sanctions, such as providing direct military aid to Moscow. However, it has provided a lifeline for Russia’s ailing economy by increasing purchases of its fuel and power at bargain prices. Chinese imports of Russian coal in August rose 57% from the same period a year earlier, reaching the highest level in five years; its imports of crude oil were also up 28% from a year earlier.
After Putin called up army reservists to join the war in Ukraine, Beijing has continued to walk a fine line, reiterating its longstanding stance of dialogue to resolve the conflict.
When asked about Russia’s possible use of nuclear weapons at a briefing on Wednesday, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman dodged the question.
“China’s stance on the Ukraine crisis has been consistent and clear,” spokesman Wang Wenbin said. “We call on the parties involved to achieve a ceasefire through dialogue and negotiation, and to find a solution that accommodates the legitimate security concerns of all parties as soon as possible.”
Also on Wednesday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York.
According to the Chinese reading, Wang stressed that China would continue to “maintain its objective and impartial position” and “advance peace negotiations” on the Ukraine issue.
But that “unbiased position” was betrayed on China’s state-run CCTV newscast, the most-watched news program in China.
Following a terse report on Putin’s “partial mobilization”—with no mention of protests in Russia or international condemnation—the program quoted an international observer directly blaming the United States for “continuing to stoke the conflict between Russia and Ukraine”.
“The conflict between Russia and Ukraine should be resolved through dialogue. But the US continues to supply weapons to Ukraine, which makes it impossible to end the conflict and makes the situation worse,” said a former national defense adviser in Timor-Leste.
“The sanctions caused by the conflict have repercussions all over the world… Oil prices in Timor-Leste have also gone up a lot. We are also suffering the consequences.”
The comments dovetail with the Russian narrative that Chinese officials and state media have been busy promoting in recent months: that the United States has instigated the war by expanding NATO to Russia’s doorstep, forcing Moscow into a corner.
The main factor driving the strategic alignment between Russia and China is the perception of threats from the United States, said CSIS’s Hart.
“As long as that variable remains constant, as long as Beijing remains concerned about the United States, I think it will continue to strengthen ties with Russia,” he said.