Days after Vladimir Putin was slapped with an international warrant for alleged war crimes in Ukraine, Xi Jinping’s first state visit to Moscow in four years is a demonstration of the Chinese leader’s commitment to the Russian president — but also set to show red lines over whether the pair last year saw “no limits.” Dubbed as “Partnership”.
Putin, who ignored Ukrainian territory seized over the weekend after an International Criminal Court warrant, will hope that Xi’s three-day visit from Monday will legitimize his invasion of Ukraine and that China can pledge material support to help its military fight back. .
But there are signs that Xi will be wary of the potential costs of a friendship with Russia’s leader, particularly in Europe as Beijing tries to boost trade after its zero-covid policy destroyed its economy last year. And despite U.S. warnings that China is considering sending arms to Russia, there is so far little evidence of significant arms flows between the two countries.
Xi may call on Putin’s nemesis, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, after his trip to Moscow, according to a person familiar with the matter. It will be Xi’s first direct contact with Zelensky since the full-scale invasion and is a sign of the obstacles China sees in its alliance with Russia, at a time when Beijing wants to be seen as a potential peacemaker.
“I think he will call,” said Yu Ji, a senior research fellow on China in the Asia-Pacific Program at Chatham House. “China simply cannot afford to be a competitor to both the US and Europe.”
Despite the war, Beijing’s close ties with Moscow, which analysts have called “pro-Russian neutrality”, are hurting its position in Europe. Analysts say that while China’s position paper last month on a possible settlement in Ukraine was met with skepticism in the West, it is a way for Beijing to reposition itself and see how the conflict develops.
The challenge for Xi is to strike a balance between those concerns and the benefits of closer ties with Moscow at a time of rising tensions with the US and its allies.
“The Ukraine war has intensified great power rivalry and made the geopolitical fault line between the US and China more obvious, and China and Russia are now actually strengthening their alignment in response,” said Alexander Korolev, an expert on China-Russia relations. University of New South Wales in Sydney.
“China will need Russia for its impending confrontation with the US, which is becoming very real,” he added, adding that Beijing needs to prepare alternative energy supply routes in case of closer military ties between the two countries and seaborne oil imports from the Middle East. Any conflict with the US over Taiwan was blocked.
As Europe and the US imposed tougher sanctions on Russia, China’s trade with its neighbor surged 34.3 percent over the past year to a record Rmb1.28tn, according to China. State-controlled media. This year, natural gas imports from Russia are expected to increase by a third.
Trade with Beijing has given Russia an economic lifeline, making up for some lost oil sales to the US and Europe and replacing critical Western-made components such as microchips, 5G equipment and industrial machinery.
“[The Chinese] Realize that this is a very advantageous moment for them to get Russia deeper into their pockets. They have tremendous leverage, said Alexandre Gabeau, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Putin’s framing of the war as part of a broader conflict with the West has brought the two countries closer. Analysts say Russia is a useful partner in China’s efforts to push back against the US “hegemon”. Russia’s powerful Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev fully endorsed Beijing’s stance on Taiwan when he met China’s top diplomat Wang Yi last month.
“For Russia, the limitations that existed before have been removed,” Gabuv said. “Putin is obsessed with this war, and the partnership brings him a lifeline to the economy, vital components to his military machine and a tool to push China back against the US – because the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken warned last month that any material support from China for Russia’s military would have “serious consequences” for relations with the US due to close ties between Beijing and Moscow.
China has responded that the West is fueling the conflict with its arms sales to Ukraine. “China did not cause or catalyze the Ukraine crisis, nor did it supply weapons to any side in the conflict,” Qin Geng, China’s foreign minister, said this month.
Yet while relations with Russia remain important, China has limited options if it wants to stabilize relations with major Western trading partners.
Xi will have the chance to meet US President Joe Biden at two summits this year, but with the US election next year, the chances of further rapprochement with Washington will be limited. And while several European leaders, including French President Emmanuel Macron, plan to visit China this year, the success of these meetings will be colored by how much Xi supports Russia in Ukraine.
For this reason, Beijing’s efforts to paint itself as a mediator are important, analysts say. China this month enjoyed a rare breakthrough in resolving the conflict when it brokered a deal to restore diplomatic ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Analysts say the conflict in Ukraine will be more difficult to resolve. China’s position paper last month failed to condemn Russian aggression and contained thinly veiled criticism of the West and NATO.
Leif-Erik Easley, a professor of international studies at Ewa University in Seoul, said China lacked neutral arbiter status in the Ukraine conflict because of Russia’s significant support. “To be helpful to China, Kiev should not dictate what compromises can be made, but find a face-saving way for Moscow to withdraw forces.”
Contact between Xi and Zelensky would represent a concession from China to Western skepticism. But any contact could be virtual rather than in-person and the results are inconclusive, analysts said, as Xi tried to balance China’s desire to play peacemaker against ceding any ground to the US.
Beijing sees the Ukraine conflict as a proxy conflict against Russia against NATO and the US, and “Zelensky lacks decision-making power”, said one expert at a Chinese think-tank in Beijing.
“All of them [Zelenskyy] Message to be forwarded to Joe Biden. President Xi Jinping does not need to endorse Zelensky in person. China respects Ukraine’s interests. But that is different from prioritizing US interests.”
Additional reporting by Sun Yu in Beijing, Kathryn Hille in Taipei and Edward White in Seoul