Putin’s grain ban plunges Xi into a deep dilemma and threatens his power

With a diplomatic offensive, Ukraine is once again trying to win over those countries that have kept a low profile since the beginning of Russia’s war of aggression against the country. Representatives from around forty countries gathered in Jeddah over the weekend to discuss prospects for an end to the war and a new post-war order, moderated by the Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman.

Xi helps Putin

Beijing is also represented. In the war instigated by his friend Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping acted as if the People’s Republic would remain a neutral force. In fact, Beijing has been keeping the Russian regime afloat economically, helping to keep the Kremlin’s war machine running by buying gas and oil (which Xi considers heavily discounted).

But supporting the Moscow tyrant is becoming costly for his Beijing counterpart and, more importantly, a threat to the stability of the Xi system, which rules the People’s Republic absolutely through the Communist Party. Beijing, whose suburbs have been hit by devastating floods these days, gets a good deal of its grain from Ukraine. But for the time being, wheat will probably no longer come across the Black Sea from Ukrainian ports. Vladimir Putin has canceled a corresponding agreement and is now massively bombing Ukrainian port facilities to prevent exports.

China must now buy grain from US allies

China, which is hit by floods in the north and heat waves in the south, is hit hard by Russia’s move. In the short term, Beijing replaced the default with imports from Australia, Canada and France. But Australia in particular, which will contribute 60 percent of the wheat to be supplied, has been repeatedly harassed by Beijing and exposed to economic hardships in the past. It must be a disgrace in Xi’s eyes to now be supplied with grain by a close ally of his nemesis America.

But nothing helps. Xi, who uses the Chinese state’s long memory as a bedrock for his nationalist and socialist ideology, is concerned that five of ancient China’s 17 dynasties were overthrown because drought led to famine. There is still water shortage in China today, which is leading to severe losses in the wheat and rice harvest. If deliveries from abroad then fail to materialize, things could quickly become tight in Xi’s empire, which for a long time bought the allegiance of the population with economic benefits and growing prosperity.

Ultimately, the Jeddah summit will be about an oath: will China help end Putin’s war against Ukraine or not?

Much depends on Xi’s decision

Not only does their own well-being depend on it, but also that of the countries of Africa and Asia, as whose protector and helper China has increasingly presented itself in recent years. Many of these countries are in debt to Beijing, their economies are not really gaining momentum after the pandemic, which is destroying the development successes so far. Famine, which is usually followed by political instability, is something Beijing really doesn’t need right now.

Xi Jinping has the power to force Russia to reopen grain trade routes. In addition, Beijing only showed in March of this year that it is ready to become diplomatically active in the region. Top diplomat Wang Yi brokered a deal that brought the warring states of Saudi Arabia and Iran back into diplomatic contact. China cannot refuse to play a mediating role between Ukraine and Russia if host Muhammad bin Salman requests it.

For Xi Jinping, this is a bitter pill to swallow. It should dawn on him that in a world where everything is interconnected, the People’s Republic, untouched by the crises of the time and enthroned above things, cannot pretend to be neutral towards Putin’s doings. When hunger knocks at their own door , President Xi may reconsider his “boundless friendship” with Vladimir Putin.

Jean Harris

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