Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping held a highly anticipated meeting on the sidelines of the Belt and Road Forum of International Cooperation on Wednesday, hailing their close relationship while celebrating the deepening political and economic ties between China and Russia.
“The political mutual trust between the two countries is continuously deepening,” Xi said, praising “the close and effective strategic coordination” that the two countries have maintained.
Some analysts say the meeting allows Xi to present China as an alternative world leader to developing countries and gives Putin a chance to prove that he is still relevant internationally.
“This meeting will champion Xi’s position [that China is] as an alternative world leader to the Global South and allow Putin to show that he has a very powerful friend [in Xi,]” Sari Arho Havrén, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), told VOA in a written response.
The visit to China marks Putin’s second trip outside Russia since the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for the Russian leader in March. Earlier this month, Putin visited Kyrgyzstan for a summit of former Soviet republics. Both China and Kyrgyzstan are not members of the ICC.
It also comes amid the escalating military conflict between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas. While China and Russia have condemned Israel’s airstrikes against Gaza and called for a cease-fire, Xi and Putin didn’t publicly address the issue.
In the official readout released by the Xinhua news agency, Xi called for joint efforts between Beijing and Moscow to “safeguard international fairness and justice.”
Some experts say Xi and Putin’s reluctance to comment on the Israel-Hamas conflict during their meeting shows both countries’ attempt to balance their relationship with the Middle East and Israel. “They haven’t fully backed Israel but neither have they been strong in terms of supporting Hamas,” said Philipp Ivanov, a senior fellow at Asia Society Policy Institute (ASPI).
He adds that China and Russia both understand their limited ability to help solve the longstanding conflict between Israel and Hamas, so instead of directly getting involved in the peace process, Ivanov thinks Moscow and Beijing might use their leverage to ensure the conflict doesn’t “spill into a wider war.”
“I think China and Russia could use their leverage with Syria, Iran, or Saudi Arabia to try to contain the conflict,” he told VOA in a video call.
Deepening bilateral exchanges
Putin’s visit to Beijing also reflects Russia’s growing reliance on China as Moscow faces mounting international sanctions due to the ongoing war in Ukraine. Since Russia has become ever-more isolated internationally, China has become an important market for Russian goods and an important buyer of Russian oil and gas, providing a crucial financial lifeline to Moscow’s war against Kyiv.
Chinese customs data shows that bilateral trade between China and Russia grew 36.5% for the first seven months of 2023, reaching $134.1 billion. Chinese analysts told China’s state-run tabloid Global Times that bilateral trade could reach $200 billion, surpassing last year’s record of $190 billion.
On Wednesday, Xi told Putin that bilateral trade volume between the two countries has reached “a historical high,” emphasizing that it’s “progressing toward the goal of $200 billion set by the two sides.”
Ivanov of ASPI pointed out that Moscow has become highly dependent on China for accessing critical technologies like motherboards and semiconductors, while Beijing is taking “full advantage of discounted commodity and energy prices” that Russia provides. “Amid China’s competition with the U.S., Russia is a stable and affordable energy provider,” he told VOA. “The benefits that both countries derive from this partnership go both ways.”
In addition to deepening engagement on the economic front, some observers say Xi and Putin will look to increase military and technical cooperation. “Apart from oil, gas and agricultural products, something that Russia can offer is certain military technologies that China needs as it ramps up its military modernization,” Ivanov noted.
And for Putin, one of the main goals is to further advance the Power of Siberia 2 gas pipeline, which China and Russia had agreed on some aspects of the deal during Xi and Putin’s Moscow meeting in March.
On Wednesday, Xi said China hopes the China-Mongolia-Russia natural gas pipeline project can make substantive progress “as soon as possible,” according to China’s state broadcaster CCTV.
Havrén from RUSI said the war between Israel and Hamas may complicate this effort, as the war could affect global natural gas prices. “But this remains Putin’s major goals,” she told VOA.
During his address at the BRI Forum on Wednesday, Putin said the BRI fits with the new transportation infrastructure that Russia has been developing, including the Northern Sea Route, which runs from Russia’s border with Norway to the Bering Strait near Alaska, according to Russia’s state-run news agency Sputnik.
China’s balancing act
Wednesday’s meeting marks the third time that Xi and Putin have met in person since 2022. Weeks before the invasion of Ukraine, Putin visited Beijing, where the two leaders signed a 5,000-word agreement to declare their “no limits partnership.”
In March, just days after the ICC issued an arrest warrant for Putin for alleged war crimes, Xi visited Moscow, during which he told Putin that they are driving changes that haven’t happened in 100 years.
Despite Xi and Putin’s close relationship, the two met 42 times as of Wednesday, some analysts say Beijing remains wary of the risk of aligning itself too closely with Moscow.
As the two leaders met in Beijing, lethal airstrikes in the Ukrainian city of Zaporizhzhia killed civilians overnight.
“I don’t think there would be a deeper, open engagement [between China and Russia] as that would further strain Beijing’s relationship with European countries,” said Havrén from RUSI.
She thinks China will try to strike a balance between its close partnership with Russia and attempts to show Western democracies that they are willing to play a neutral role on issues such as the Ukraine War. “That’s what Beijing tries to do, but it’s more or less a camouflage,” she said.