Putin Visits China as Moscow and Beijing Reaffirm Ties

When President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia meets with China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, during a visit to Beijing this week, both men will likely seek to demonstrate the strength of their “no limits” partnership in challenging the Western-dominated global order.

The visit comes at a time of turmoil in the Middle East after Hamas’s attack on Israel this month, which has led to Israeli airstrikes in Gaza and expectations of a ground invasion. Both Russia and China have refrained from following the lead of Western countries by condemning Hamas directly. Instead, the two countries have called for an end to the violence and a revival of talks about a Palestinian state, a stance aimed at strengthening their position with Arab countries. China’s foreign minister this weekend accused Israel of going too far in its reprisals in Gaza, echoing an earlier denunciation by Egypt.

Mr. Putin’s visit highlights Moscow’s dependence on China for support as his war in Ukraine, which has led to international sanctions on Russia, grinds toward a stalemate. The Russian leader will likely be pushing for stronger economic ties with Beijing.

Mr. Putin arrived in Beijing on Tuesday to attend the Belt and Road Forum, a meeting about China’s global infrastructure initiative. The trip is only Mr. Putin’s second outside Russia since the International Criminal Court issued a warrant for his arrest on suspicion of war crimes in March. Mr. Putin traveled to Kyrgyzstan last week to participate in a summit of former Soviet states. Last month, he skipped a gathering of the BRICS nations in South Africa and the G20 in India.

Mr. Putin in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, last week with leaders of other former Soviet states. Credit…Igor Kovalenko/EPA, via Shutterstock

In China, the Kremlin said, Mr. Putin will join Mr. Xi on Wednesday for meetings accompanied by ministers. The two men will also meet one-on-one.

Among Mr. Putin’s top priorities is the proposed Power of Siberia 2 gas pipeline, which would help redirect Russian gas supplies that historically have gone to Europe toward China instead. It is unclear how much Beijing supports the project, which requires constructing a pipeline through Mongolia.

Mr. Xi is Mr. Putin’s most important partner on the global stage, providing the embattled Russian leader with diplomatic cover and a financial lifeline after Western-led countries sought to punish Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.

China remains the senior partner in the relationship, but the weak recovery of China’s economy from the pandemic has improved Russia’s bargaining position since the two leaders last met, in Moscow in March, said Alexander Gabuev, director of the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center.

For China, the status quo suits its interests. The stabilization of the frontline in Ukraine means that Beijing does not need to dramatically intervene on Russia’s side to prevent a military defeat that could shake Putin’s grip on power. And the drawn-out, inconclusive war leaves Russia economically and diplomatically dependent on China, and too distracted to counter Beijing in areas where their geopolitical interests overlap, such as Central Asia.

“China is not ready to throw Russia under the bus,” Mr. Gabuev said.

Mr. Putin and China’s leader, Xi Jinping, at the Kremlin in March. Since the Ukraine war began, Mr. Xi has given Mr. Putin diplomatic cover and a financial lifeline.Credit…Alexey Maishev/Sputnik

Mr. Xi and Mr. Putin declared a “no limits” partnership just weeks before Moscow’s invasion, to signal their alignment in opposing what they call U.S. hegemony. While that alignment still holds, China has had to hedge its relationship with Russia to manage its ties with important trading partners such as the European Union.

China has tried to cast itself as neutral on the war, which has entered its 21st month. Earlier this year, Beijing issued a proposed political settlement to end the fighting, though the plan was criticized by Washington and some of its allies for protecting Russian interests.

Russia has also tried to demonstrate that it has autonomy in its relationship with China. Mr. Putin hosted North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, in Russia last month — a move seen as a hedge by Moscow against Beijing.

“China prefers to maintain an independent and autonomous diplomatic image in the international community,” said Xiao Bin, a researcher for the Institute of Russian, East European and Central Asian Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. “Russia cannot become more dependent on China because it has become very clear that China does not want to stand on the same side completely with Russia on all issues. China has its own practical problems to solve.”

Mr. Putin hosted North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, in Russia last month, in what was seen as a hedge against China. Credit…Mikhail Metzel/Sputnik

The Ukraine conflict has affected China in varying ways. On one hand, Beijing has benefited by gaining access to discounted Russian oil. The war has also diverted American resources — both financial and military — away from China’s periphery in Asia, though Beijing still complains about mounting U.S. pressure to contain China.

Conversely, the war has galvanized more global concern about Beijing’s aggressive claims over the de facto independent island of Taiwan. It has also roiled relations with Europe, a region Beijing had hoped to court to weaken trans-Atlantic coordination on issues like trade and investment restrictions directed at China.

This week’s meeting between Mr. Xi and Mr. Putin comes as Beijing and Washington are working toward a thaw in relations. But analysts say China’s long-term interests still favor close ties with Russia because China’s intense competition with the United States for global power could last years, if not decades.

“The bromance is going strong, and in essence remains unaffected by the thaw in U.S.-China relations,” Yun Sun, director of the China program at the Stimson Center in Washington, said about Mr. Xi and Mr. Putin. “China clearly doesn’t believe in the sustainability of such a thaw, so Russia remains a key partner in the counter-U.S. alignment.”

Olivia Wang contributed reporting.

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