From Republic.ru, March 23, 2023, https://republic.ru/posts/107715. Condensed text:
Vladimir Putin called the talks with Chinese leader Xi Jinping that just ended in Moscow “successful.” This wasn’t much of a surprise. After all, he couldn’t call the much-ballyhooed meeting with the Chinese president a failure or a total waste of time. Even though that’s exactly what it turned out to be. In the sense of a total waste of time. In the best case, it could be characterized as fairly modest.
I’ll just recall that Putin himself said during a meeting with the Chinese leader that trade turnover between Russia and China amounted to $185 billion in 2022. During talks the next day, Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin said that this figure should reach $200 billion in 2023. Ambitious plans, to be sure.
The main result of the Chinese leader’s long-anticipated visit to Moscow was that Putin failed to create a strategic union between Russia and China. He can dream about such a union as much as he wants, but alas and alack –
This visit from Xi was actually a gesture toward Washington, not Moscow. Beijing obviously wanted to make it clear to the US that the Chinese are level-headed people in favor of cooperation, but that if they are pushed too hard, well, then the US knows what kind of friend they have. And judging by the results of Xi Jinping’s trip to Moscow, this was its main purpose. . . .
Xi’s visit to Moscow was a state visit and was organized following the highest level of protocol, but Andrei Kolesnikov, an old-timer in the Kremlin pool, observed that the Chinese delegation was relatively small: “According to Kommersant, the Chinese, whose delegations usually have far too many members, didn’t even bring their quota [of people], which was already small.”
In the East in general and in China in particular, a great deal of significance is given to symbolic gestures.
It could be that the Chinese leader decided to reduce the size of his delegation at the last minute, when he was notified that nine Chinese people were killed and two wounded by Wagner mercenaries at a gold mine in the Central African Republic (CAR).
CAR leaders, who work closely with Moscow and its Wagner PMC, immediately shifted the blame for this crime onto rebels from the Coalition of Patriots for Change. The coalition, however, denied any involvement, saying that the killings weren’t really its style; instead, it said, it only kidnaps Chinese people for ransom. It also said that Wagner mercenaries brought the bodies of the Chinese workers killed during the storming of the gold mine to the country’s capital of Bangui.
The incident did not force Xi to cancel his visit to Moscow, if only for the technical reason that an investigation has not even been launched. But it did undoubtedly become a fly in the ointment of the talks with Putin.
A curious detail: There is still a conspiracy of silence about this high-profile crime in the Russian progovernment media. It’s not just that the Wagnerites’ involvement is being neither confirmed nor denied – it is simply not being written about at all, which certainly makes you wonder.
The big question is how Putin plans to settle this problem with Xi Jinping. But we can be sure of one thing – he won’t give up his oprichniki. And this also will do nothing to benefit the cooperation with China of which he so dreams. In any case, we still don’t know of any cases where Wagnerites were prosecuted for even the most terrible war crimes. . . .
Knowing Putin’s manner and style of communication, we can assume that, as usual, he told Xi that “it wasn’t us” and promised at the same time to conduct a thorough check in the hope of sweeping the whole thing under the rug, which is what he usually does.
The problem, however, is not just the incident in the CAR, which naturally did a great deal to spoil the atmosphere of the talks in Moscow. In and of itself, the incident became a manifestation of much more serious problems in Russian-Chinese relations.
The fact is that over the past 45 years, China has become a major imperialist predator under the wise leadership of its “Communist” (mostly in name) party. Over these decades, China’s economy has rapidly gone from the barracks of socialism to small-scale capitalist production, and then on to a new global monopoly. Today, as in the times of Marx and Engels, global Chinese capital is creating “the need of a constantly expanding market for its products” and “chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe.”
After Deng Xiaoping’s reform, the Chinese economy rapidly transformed from an ordinary capitalist economy into a classical imperialist one, in the sense of how this was described in the early 20th century by the English economist John A. Hobson, who was the first to use the term “imperialism,” and his Austrian colleague Rudolf Hilferding. Later, Vladimir Lenin developed this topic in his famous work “Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism” on the basis of their research. Lenin said the main economic signs of imperialism are supermonopoly and the export of capital instead of the export of goods, which predominates in classic capitalism. Both the current Chinese economic model and the Russian one ideally fall into these categories, especially when it comes to export of capital to underdeveloped countries, with the only difference being that their scales and capabilities are not comparable: Russia today accounts for less than 2% of the world’s gross domestic product, while China accounts for almost 20% of it.
Today it’s hard to name a place on the planet where modern Chinese capital has not attempted to promote its goods and investments. While the US and, to a lesser extent, the European Union are the main consumers of cheap Chinese goods, Africa has become the main destination for Chinese investments.
Naturally, Beijing is not the only one with an interest in the continent. The interests of the Chinese, the Europeans and now Russia in Africa are defined by two main factors: enormous reserves of natural resources like oil, gas, gold and diamonds, and one other important resource that is still in abundance there – cheap labor.
We should note that the Chinese economic “miracle” existed for a long time mainly because of the cheap price of this particular good, which affected the cost of all other goods. However, the cost of labor has increased sharply in China over the past 10 years. Suffice it to say that both minimum and average wages in China are already higher than they are in Russia. For this reason, entrepreneurial-minded Chinese people have started actively investing in Africa, where Chinese capital plays a major role today. Because of this, we can easily assume that the Chinese will not tolerate Russia’s attempt to return to Africa with the help of Wagner mercenaries.
Meanwhile, in recent years Putin has been trying hard to insinuate himself into Africa in his usual unceremonious way. As we know, the second Russia-Africa summit is scheduled for 2023. The first was held in Sochi in October 2019 [see Vol. 71, No. 43, pp. 7‑9]. Russia wants pretty much the same thing from Africa that the Chinese want – natural resources and cheap labor.
The only problem is that wherever the Chinese go – be it Latin America or Africa – they invest heavily. Lacking the kind of funds China has, Russia can at best offer outdated weapons, as well as the specific “services” of its mercenaries, which, as the incident at the gold mine in CAR proves yet again, are used there not so much to protect certain sites as to put the squeeze on them. . . .
In any case, it’s clear that Russia and China are competitors in Africa, not allies. The incident at the gold mine is just the first warning sign of their disagreements in this region.
Naturally, Putin would like to somehow iron out these differences and convince Xi that they can come to an agreement. There is little chance of this, however. A clash of Beijing’s and Moscow’s interests in this region is almost inevitable, because Russian imperialism wants almost the same thing from Africa as Chinese imperialism. The difference is only in the size of their economic and military potential.
Another piece of good news resulting from the talks was that Putin agreed to switch to yuan settlements in Africa. In other words, dependence on the dollar, which is, after all, the world’s convertible currency, is bad in Putin’s opinion, while dependence on the yuan, which is strictly controlled by the Chinese leadership, is wonderful. Well, that too is his choice.
Xi expressed confidence that Putin will win the 2024 [presidential] election. Some observers saw this as the khan giving the “golden jarlig” to a large principality. It could be interpreted that way. But the fact is that a Russian president like Putin is undoubtedly beneficial for China.