BEIJING — Russian President Vladimir Putin may feel increasingly isolated after the downing last week of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, but on the world stage he knows he has at least one reliable friend: China’s leader, Xi Jinping.
Putin and Xi have spent lots of time together in the last 18 months, and over the past week the Chinese media that Xi controls have blasted the West for suggesting that Putin bears responsibility for the downing of MH17.
“The Western rush to judge Russia is not based on evidence or logic,” the newspaper Global Times, an offshoot of the government-owned People’s Daily, said in an editorial Monday. “Russia has been back-footed, forced into a passive stance by Western reaction. It is yet another example of the power of Western opinion as a political tool.”
For his part, Xi has been careful in his public comments, calling for a “fair and objective” probe of the disaster and expressing condolences for the 298 lives lost. Along with the 14 other members of the United Nations Security Council, China voted Monday for a resolution, drafted by Australia, that calls for an immediate and transparent investigation of what brought the plane down.
Yet by using its official mouthpiece to defend Moscow so strongly, China has opened itself to questions about how it will respond should strong evidence emerge that Russia contributed to the flight’s demise. Some analysts doubt that Xi would join an international action against Russia that might endanger oil and gas deals China has struck with its northern neighbor.
“Since the 1990s, the main goal of Chinese leaders with Russia has been to secure more oil and gas,” Steven W. Lewis, a China specialist at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, said in an interview with McClatchy. “The more they can get from Russia, the less they need to get from the Persian Gulf, with shipments protected by the U.S. Navy.”
In May, Putin and Xi signed a 30-year, $400 billion deal to ship natural gas from Russia’s eastern reaches to China. The deal helps China reduce its reliance on dirty coal to power its economy, and it gives Putin a big new customer at a time when many are arguing that Europe should reduce its dependence on Russian fossil fuels.
“The other reason China doesn’t want to upset the apple cart with Russia is because of the influence Russia has with another neighbor, Kazakhstan,” Lewis said. China has oil and gas deals with Kazakhstan. All three countries have worked together to counter Islamist militants, including what Beijing calls Uighur “separatists” in its far-western Xinjiang province.
Energy and border security, however, are just two of the reasons Xi is unlikely to risk conflict with Putin. Both share a goal of blunting U.S. influence in their respective spheres of power, and limiting U.N. interference in some of their forays abroad. It also seems that Xi and Putin have developed a personal bond, although it’s hard to gauge how close that relationship really is.
When Xi assumed the presidency early last year, Russia was the first country he visited. He’s since met with Putin at least six times, more than with any other foreign leader. He’ll do so again next month, meeting with the Russian president in Mongolia to finalize a trilateral energy deal.
Xi has been a harsh critic of the Russian leader who presided over the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, blaming him in a speech last year for forsaking “a great party.” In Putin, Xi sees a strong-willed leader who aims to restore Russia’s stature in the world, if not its communist ideology.
When Xi visited Russia last year, Russian state media reported that the Chinese leader said to Putin, “I feel that our personalities are quite similar.” That remark surprised many in China, whose leaders tend to be stiffly formal in diplomatic situations, and it raised the possibility that Putin and Xi have a relationship that transcends strategic calculations.
Since the downing of MH17, few countries have had more interest in the Russia-China relationship than Australia, which lost 28 of its citizens on the flight and is a big trading partner with China. On Wednesday, the Lowy Institute, a leading Australian research center, held a public forum in Sydney on the air disaster, which featured experts on Russia, China and international law.
Matthew Sussex, a specialist in Russia and national security at the University of Tasmania, said Wednesday that he saw several scenarios for what happened to MH17. These include the possibility _ unlikely, he said _ that Ukrainian or Russian government forces had shot it down.
That leaves the likelihood that pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine blew it from the sky, he said, either with a surface-to-air missile provided by Moscow or one captured from Ukrainian forces.
Sussex said he thought the latter scenario was the most likely, partly because of reports that rebels, in previous weeks, had captured a large number of Ukrainian anti-aircraft missiles. While Russia has reportedly been supplying the rebels with a steady stream of small arms, it would be difficult for Russia to send larger weapons, such as surface-to-air missiles, without international detection, he said.
Even if Russia is proved to bear some responsibility, it will be difficult to prosecute those responsible. Alex Oliver, a research fellow at the Lowy Institute, said the International Court of Justice in the Netherlands was one venue for prosecution. But Russia _ along with Ukraine _ refuses to accept the compulsory jurisdiction of that court, and thus can’t be forced to appear before it.
Another possibility, said Oliver, is for the Security Council to delegate a different judicial body, the International Criminal Court, also in the Netherlands, to prosecute those responsible. But since Russia has veto power on the Security Council, that’s unlikely to happen, and it’s uncertain how China would vote.
In March, China abstained on a Security Council resolution, vetoed by Russia, that would have declared illegal a referendum in Crimea that led to Russia’s annexation of the territory. At the time, China’s U.N. ambassador, Liu Jieyi, said his country opposed the vote because it would “only result in confrontation and further complicate the situation.”
Rory Medcalf, the director of the Lowy Institute’s international security program, said the China-Russia alliance wasn’t as strong as both countries would like the world to think. “But at the moment, both countries are trying to help one another, partly because they are so isolated diplomatically in their own regions,” he said.
Medcalf said Western powers should be wary of isolating Russia and China to the point that they developed the kind of alliance that divided the planet decades ago.
“The extreme scenario,” Medcalf said, is that “America is in a new cold war against China and Russia at the same time. . . . I don’t think we are there yet, but this is one of the biggest tests for American diplomacy.”