Putin and Xi: Asymmetric friendship

A romantic dinner in the Kremlin. Source: en.kremlin.ru

Last week I wrote about Orwell’s totalitarian world, where Oceania can at one point be allied with Eastasia against Eurasia, and at the next moment be allied with Eurasia against Eastasia. According to Putin’s most recent version of history, Russia has always been at war with Europe and the West in general. And at the moment, its “eternal” ally is China.

Since Putin came back to power in 2012, he has published several articles about Russia and China’s partnership in Chinese media. It is interesting to see some subtle changes in the use of words over time. In his 2012 article, Putin used the word druzhba “friendship” only once. The article that appeared before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 contained four uses of the words “friendship” and “friends” with regard to China. One year later, the text that appeared before Xi Jinping’s visit to Moscow last week contained eight occurrences of “friendship” and “friend(s)”. The friendship seems to be growing and growing. This is also supported by my sentiment analysis of Putin’s speeches: China has higher chances to be used in positive contexts than any other major foreign country.

It is important to stress that the Russian word drug “friend” implies greater commitment and stronger emotions than its English translation. According to the famous linguist Anna Wiezbicka, who developed an ingenious metalanguage for comparing concepts across different cultures, a Russian speaker who names someone a “friend” usually means the following:

  • I know this person very well.
  • I think very good things about this person.
  • I want to often be with this person.
  • I want to often talk to this person.
  • I know: I can say anything to this person and nothing bad will happen because of this.
  • I want this person to know what I think.
  • I want this person to know why I think this.
  • I want this person to know what I feel.
  • I want to do good things for this person.
  • When something bad happens to this person, I can’t not do something good for this person.
  • I know: this person thinks the same about me (Wierzbicka 1997: 63).

This sounds like a deep and intense relationship. And indeed, judging from the most recent article, Putin’s friendship with Comrade Xi has become almost intimate, like a bromance:

We have reached an unprecedented level of trust in our political dialogue, our strategic cooperation has become truly comprehensive in nature and is standing on the brink of a new era. President Xi Jinping and I have met about 40 times and have always found time and opportunity to talk in a variety of official formats as well as at no‑tie events.

V. Putin, March 17 2023. Source: http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/70743

Following Wiezbicka’s descriptions, both the English “friend” and its Russian counterpart normally mean that the relationship is symmetric: “I know: this person thinks the same about me”. And it this word itself were not enough, Putin stresses that the relationship is on an equal footing:

The Russia-China relations have reached the highest level in their history and are gaining even more strength; they surpass Cold War-time military-political alliances in their quality, with no one to constantly order and no one to constantly obey [the emphasis is mine – NL], without limitations or taboos. 

V. Putin, March 17 2023. Source: http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/70743

However, the relationships between China and Russia simply cannot be symmetric. Russia depends on China much more than the other way round. While China is the main trade partner for Russia, Russia accounts for only 3% of China’s foreign trade turnover. Even as far as oil and gas are concerned, Russia’s exports are way behind those of Saudi Arabia and Turkmenistan. China does not want to become dependent on Russia’s supplies, as we can see from Xi’s reluctance to announce the Power-of-Siberia 2 pipeline. According to the Novaya Gazeta, China is not ready to sell cutting-edge technologies to Russia or invest money in Russian economy. There are no indications that military help is coming from China, either.

Moreover, Putin desperately needs Xi’s political support. After The Hague issued an arrest warrant for Putin for his crimes in Ukraine, he wants to show to the world that he is not a pariah. Xi’s visit to Moscow last week was a great opportunity for Putin to demonstrate that there are top-level politicians who still shake hands with him.

This urgent need is reflected in Putin’s language. In the official transcripts of the meeting, Putin mentioned the words “China” and “Chinese” 51 times. The words “Russia” and “Russian” occurred only 26 times. In 28 cases, “China”/”Chinese” and “Russia”/”Russian” were mentioned together, as in “Russia-China relations”. Putin is anxious to please Xi and get China’s support, even at the cost of Russia’s interests. It is interesting that Xi is more balanced, not asserting China’s dominance. In his transcripts, “China”/”Chinese” occur 17 times, “Russia”/”Russian” 13 times and both countries 15 times. There is no need for him to humiliate Putin. At least, for the time being.

Xi needs Putin less than Putin needs him. Of course, it is nice to have an ally against the USA, but not at all costs. This asymmetry is reflected in language use, as well. Whereas Putin used the word forms “friend” and “friends” referring to Xi and the Chinese delegation 10 times, Xi did so only twice. Even if we control for the total number of words (Putin said twice as much as Xi, according to the official records), the difference is still there. Putin addressed Xi as a “dear friend”, but Xi named Putin a friend only once during the official part:

Mr President, I always call you my dear friend.

Xi Jinping, March 20 2023. Source: http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/transcripts/70746.

Also, when saying goodbye to Putin and shaking hands, Xi was heard to say, “Please take care, dear friend”. Sounds a bit sinister, like “Be careful, my friend”.

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