Xi was taken by surprise (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

March 21, 2023   5 mins

After Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine last year, Beijing’s faithful lieges in Europe were quick to declare that China, perhaps even Xi Jinping himself, was “the key” to ending the war. The truth could not be more different: in the 13 months that followed, China’s role has been scarcely greater than Montenegro’s, where a number of wealthy Russians are sitting out the war, or Serbia’s, which remains Russia’s only true European ally.

Xi’s current trip to Moscow, then, is as much about saving face in Beijing as it is about bringing peace to Kyiv. If he can turn his visit into a successful mediation that stops the fighting — even if it is just a ceasefire — Xi would not only win a class-A diplomatic victory on the global stage, but also remedy China’s own war misfortunes.

The primary reason for Beijing’s initial claim to neutrality was that Xi was caught by surprise, despite the “no-limits” strategic partnership he had proclaimed with Putin just three weeks before the war started. Putin was not to blame for this; he certainly had no intention of deceiving Xi. Rather, it was Putin himself who was deceived — by his own FSB intelligence chiefs, who predicted that Kyiv would fall swiftly, leading to Ukraine’s total surrender. If this all seems foolish in retrospect, it was a foolishness Washington shared, where similar CIA intelligence prompted Biden’s offer to immediately evacuate Zelenskyy.

Yet for China, Russia’s failure to rapidly conquer Ukraine was only the start of a series of very unpleasant surprises. First came the overnight transformation of Nato: from an obsolete Cold War pact into a forcefully expanding alliance. Finland and Sweden dispatched weapons even before applying for membership, while Japan sent financial aid as though it were a member state. Beijing was suddenly forced to recalculate the overall US-China balance of global power, a transformation made even more urgent after the British, French, German and Italian governments promised to send warships to the South China Sea. Chinese propagandists who ridiculed such old-fashioned gunboat diplomacy could overlook the accompanying British and French nuclear attack submarines, but the Chinese navy could not.

The next unpleasant surprise came from the G7 grouping of the US and its major allies: Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the UK. Instead of hesitating while each country tried to safeguard its own export interests, they all immediately agreed to impose sweeping economic sanctions on Russia. It was instantly obvious in Beijing that while Russia would not be seriously harmed by the sanctions, because it is self-sufficient in both energy and food, China’s position was altogether more perilous: it is the world’s largest importer of animal feed and food, as well as of coal, oil and gas.

True, demand for the latter would collapse in the event of a war over Taiwan and the sanctions that would inevitably follow; seaborne exports would end, as would the energy demands of China’s vast export industries. But China’s 1.4 billion people must still eat, and to feed them the country imports some 130 million metric tons of animal feed and food, including 95 million metric tons of soya beans alone. Under G7 sanctions, this vast traffic of thousands of bulk carriers would grind to a halt. Ships bound for China would no longer be loaded in the Pacific ports of the US and Canada, both major sources of soya beans, maize and wheat, while the Atlantic ports of Argentina and Brazil, the other major sources of China’s food imports, are an ocean too far for the China trade. With any form of war underway, it would be all too easy to dissuade the passage of China-bound ships across the Atlantic, around Africa and through the Indian ocean to the Strait of Malacca.

This may all seem improbable, but Xi has recognised China’s disadvantage. Just two days before his departure for Moscow, he issued a most urgent “Directive No. 1” focused exclusively on food security. It started with an old slogan —“We must ensure that the Chinese rice bowl [is] firmly in our own hands at all times, with that rice bowl being filled mainly with Chinese grain” — before recognising that China’s population needs much more than cereals: they require meat and milk, which can only be produced if the entire agricultural economy is drastically improved to achieve self-sufficiency in animal feed as well, an aim that he promised would be achieved in the “middle of the century”.

Not only does this suggest that any Taiwanese adventure will have to wait, but it confirmed that Xi finally understands his citizens are physiologically different from Mao’s, who survived on very little when I lived in Beijing in 1976: rice, wheat, sorghum, odd greens, bits of dried cabbage in winter, rare eggs, and, once a week, slivers of chicken or pork. No doubt this was brought to Xi’s attention during last year’s Shanghai lockdown protests, during which there were bitter complaints of starvation even though all had plenty of rice. More than a year after the G7 sanctions were imposed, Russians continue to eat as they did before; had those same sanctions been imposed on China, they would have gravely endangered the survival of the regime.

Faced with such unhappy prospects, Xi now has an opportunity to leap on to the very centre of the global stage, if only he can persuade Zelenskyy and his government to negotiate an exit from the war by finally accepting that Crimea is lost, and that internationally supervised plebiscites (with refugees anywhere in the world all assured a vote) will be required in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Whatever their outcome, an end to fighting on these terms would take away nothing from Ukraine’s very successful war of independence, which has gifted its people that priceless possession: a national myth in good working order.

After Beijing’s successful diplomatic entry into the Persian Gulf, entirely the result of the Biden Administration’s wrecking of the Saudi alliance, any agreement that Xi can pull off over Ukraine, even a brief ceasefire, would be a great diplomatic victory. It is fortunate, then, that Zelenskyy will not give Xi the opportunity. He does recognise that, after an end to the fighting, it is only with the help of the US and its allies that Ukraine can be reconstructed. What he still needs to recognise is that this point cannot be reached unless the war does end, in the only way that was possible all along — unless Vladimir Putin is ousted. We cannot wait until then to end the fighting.

And neither, it seems, can Xi. It is very likely that his Moscow visit will result in nothing more than an under-the-table deal to quietly transfer 152mm howitzer ammunition and such, leaving Xi’s problem unsolved. At a time when the Chinese economy is slowing down, with unprecedented levels of youth unemployment, the US and Japan are sharply increasing their military spending, and consolidating an alliance that now fully includes India, as well as re-arming Australia. It was, of course, Xi’s own bellicosity that encircled China with enemies. It is too much to hope that visiting a beleaguered Putin in the Kremlin will induce him to change course.

Professor Edward Luttwak is a strategist and historian known for his works on grand strategy, geoeconomics, military history, and international relations.