China’s Xi, Russia's Putin swap praise as they begin key Moscow summit

Xi's trip endorses Putin even as China portrays itself as neutral in the Ukraine crisis.
By RFA Staff
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China’s Xi, Russia's Putin swap praise as they begin  key Moscow summit Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping attend a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, March 20, 2023.
(Photo/Sergei KarpukhinSputnik/Reuters)

Updated at 4:05 P.M. EDT on 03-20-2023

Chinese President Xi Jinping landed in Moscow on Monday, trading praise with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin at the start of a three-day state visit that is being closely watched for what the two leaders say about the war in Ukraine.

Xi’s first foreign trip after being re-appointed for a rare third term is also his first visit to Russia since Putin invaded Ukraine. Xi and Putin, both effectively leaders for life of their nuclear-armed countries, have met around 40 times during Xi's decade in power.

“Dear friend, welcome to Russia,” Putin said.

“Over the last few years, China has made a colossal leap forward in its development. This arouses genuine interest all over the world and we are even a bit jealous of you,” he added.

Xi praised Putin's “strong leadership” that he said had delivered greater prosperity to Russia.

“You have elections next year, and I’m sure the Russian people will support you,” he said.

The international focus is on the Ukraine war, after Beijing last month released a 12-point position on the Ukraine crisis.

China last month released a 12-point proposal for ending the war and called for a cease-fire and peace talks between Kyiv and Moscow. The plan received a cautious welcome from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy but was seen by the U.S. and Europe as letting Moscow off easy.

"We expect Beijing to use its influence on Moscow to make it put an end to the aggressive war against Ukraine," said Oleg Nikolenko, a spokesman for Ukraine's foreign ministry was quoted by Al Jazeera as saying Monday.

'Freeze the war'

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Monday that Washington "welcomes any initiative that advances a just and durable peace" and China's plan contains humanitarian and nuclear safety "elements that we have long supported."

But he warned against a ceasefire that left the conflict unresolved and would allow Russia to rearm and resume fighting at a time of its choice.

"The world should not be fooled by any tactical move by Russia, supported by China or any other country, to freeze the war on its own terms," he told reporters in Washington.

"If China is committed to supporting an end to the war, based on the principles of the UN Charter, as called for in point one of (Xi's) plan, it can engage with President Zelenskyy in Ukraine on that basis and use its influence to compel Moscow to pull back its forces," added Blinken.

Xi's visit comes three days after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Putin for war crimes related to the suspected abductions of children from Ukraine.

Moscow responded furiously to the indictment, but analysts say the warrant would not affect Xi’s visit in any significant way because both Russia and China are not state parties of the Rome Statute and do not recognize the court’s jurisdiction.

"The ICC needs to take an objective and just position, respect the jurisdictional immunity of a head of state under international law, prudently exercise its mandate in accordance with the law, interpret and apply international law in good faith, and not engage in politicization or using double standards." Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said on Monday in Beijing.

"China will uphold an objective and fair position on the Ukraine crisis and play a constructive role in promoting talks for peace.," Wang added.

Russia China.jpg
New Michurinsky Prospekt station of the Moscow Metro, made in Chinese style and decorated with Chinese characters, is seen in Moscow on March 17, 2023. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP) 

On Monday, two major newspapers in Russia and China simultaneously published two articles by Putin and Xi that reflected their approaches towards each other.

Putin’s article in the People’s Daily said Russia appreciated China’s “well-balanced stance on the events in Ukraine” and Moscow welcomed “China’s readiness to make a meaningful contribution to the settlement of the crisis.” 

The Russian president went on to condemn Western countries for “the irresponsible and outright dangerous actions that jeopardize nuclear security.”

“Russia is open to the political and diplomatic resolution of the Ukraine crisis,” Putin wrote, “Unfortunately, the ultimatum nature of requirements placed on Russia shows that their authors are detached from these realities and lack interest in finding a solution to the situation.”

“We reject illegitimate unilateral sanctions, which must be lifted,” the article said.

Without mentioning the U.S., Xi wrote: “The international community is well aware that no country in the world is superior to all others. There is no universal model of government and there is no world order where the decisive word belongs to a single country."

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Friday that the two leaders would discuss the “further development of comprehensive partnership and strategic cooperation between Russia and China” during Xi’s trip, which lasts until Wednesday.

Military-technical cooperation and energy issues will be high on the agenda.

They will sign a joint statement on a plan to develop key areas of Russian-Chinese economic cooperation until 2030, according to Russian presidential aide Yuri Ushakov

The two sides also plan to sign “more than 10” documents on various areas of cooperation, Ushakov told a press briefing.

Ukraine peace plan?

“The Ukraine war will no doubt be the top issue for the two leaders’ meeting,” said Baohui Zhang, professor of Government and International Affairs at Hong Kong’s Ling nan University.

“China should have concerns for the prospect of Russia’s eventual defeat and the following geopolitical consequences,” Zhang told Radio Free Asia (RFA).

“Moreover, China is sandwiched between Russia and the West regarding its roles in the Ukraine war. It is a quagmire that Beijing does not want.”

“[The] Chinese and Russian leaders will certainly talk about how to end the war as a cease of conflict is conducive to the interests of both,” the analyst said.

China’s 12-point blue print on the Ukraine crisis, on the other hand, does not offer concrete measures to end the conflict and “it’s difficult to say what Xi might say to Putin in private,” said Ian Storey, a Singapore-based scholar who has been studying China’s and Russia’s defense diplomacy in Southeast Asia.

“I don’t think he will try to persuade Putin to sign some kind of ceasefire agreement with Ukraine,” Storey said.

When it comes to the Ukraine conflict, “the key question is whether or not the Putin-Xi summit will lead to decisions on the part of China to open large-scale military and military-related supplies to Russia,” said Artyom Lukin, deputy director for research at the School of Regional and International Studies at Russia’s Far Eastern Federal University. 

“For Beijing to go ahead with weapons shipments to Russia, it must be confident in the strength and resilience of the Chinese economy that will likely be hit with massive Western sanctions,” Lukin told RFA.

“Judging from the list of Russian top officials who will be present at the Putin-Xi talks, the main topics on the agenda will be bilateral economic relations,” the analyst said.

China wary of Washington’s red lines

Amongst participants, there will be ministers of finance and transport, the Governor of the Central Bank Elvira Nabiullina, and the head of the State Nuclear Energy Corporation Rosatom Alexei Likhachev, as well as prominent businessmen.

“Even though Beijing keeps denouncing Western sanctions imposed on Russia, China has been careful not to cross the red lines drawn by Washington,” Lukin told RFA.

“Despite the overall considerable growth of bilateral trade last year, some areas of the Russia-China economic relationship, especially in financial and hi-tech sectors, have suffered,” he said.

Xi’s visit to Moscow can provide some answers to the key question of “whether China’s cautiousness in business dealings with Russia is transient or for the long haul,.” added Lukin.

Storey,  a senior fellow at the ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute, pointed out that “increasingly Beijing will throw Moscow an economic lifeline” as Russia is an important country for China and “China cannot let Western sanctions against Russia succeed.”

“As time goes by, Russia’s dependence on China will deepen,” he said.

Among the agreements to be signed during Xi’s visit to Moscow “one major indicator to watch will be a possible signing of a binding contract to supply gas from western Siberia to China via a pipeline that will traverse Mongolia before entering China,” according to Lukin.

“Natural gas that Gazprom seeks to supply to China through the projected pipeline is from the same deposits that had, until recently, fed Europe’s energy needs.”

“If Beijing hands this mega-contract to Moscow, this may signal Xi’s determination to develop durable links with Russia,” the Russian analyst said, adding that another big item on the economic agenda could be setting up a system to “bypass SWIFT and Western currencies in bilateral trade and investment.”

‘A tighter embrace’

Chinese President Xi Jinping's motorcade is driven toward The Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, Monday, March 20, 2023. (AP Photo)
Chinese President Xi Jinping's motorcade is driven toward The Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, Monday, March 20, 2023. (AP Photo)

“While there has been much talk of the West trying to drive a wedge between Russia and China, this is just wishful thinking,” according to Storey.

“As both countries increasingly feel that they are the target of a U.S.-led containment strategy they have moved into a tighter embrace,” he said.

For that reason, the U.S. will “certainly be on the agenda of the meeting” between Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin, according to professor Baohui Zhang from Lingnan University.

“The Sino-Russia strategic partnership is motivated by the U.S. primacy in international affairs,” Zhang said, “The U.S. support for Ukraine and the U.S. shift towards strategic competition against China have provided more momentum for Beijing and Moscow to tighten their diplomatic and security partnership.”

Over the past decade, Xi Jinping has made eight visits to Russia

Vladimir Putin, for his part, made 12 official visits to China since his first presidency in 2000. His last state visit to Beijing took place in February 2022.

Updates with remarks by Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin..


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