Chinese Xi Jinping meets Putin amid Russian military losses

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Russian President Vladimir Putin told Chinese leader Xi Jinping on Thursday that Moscow “understands” Beijing’s concerns over the war in Ukraine in their first face-to-face meeting since the invasion, as the two countries test the limits of their friendship disrupted by the setbacks of Russia. in the invasion.

“We highly appreciate the balanced position of our Chinese friends regarding the Ukrainian crisis, we understand your questions and concerns about it, and at today’s meeting we will of course clarify all this in detail,” Putin said. in his opening speech in Uzbekistan. , kicking off a meeting with Xi, whom he addressed as his “dear and longtime friend”.

The Russian leader added that Russia is committed to the one-China principle and “condemned the provocations” by the United States in Taiwan.

When the two leaders met in February to declare the start of their “limitless” partnership, they were also signaling the start of a new alignment of two of the world’s most powerful authoritarian states.

Since then, Russia’s war on Ukraine has been worse for Moscow than expected, with Russia facing repeated humiliating military setbacks, while Putin has been largely shunned by Western leaders and Russia’s economy has suffered. hammered by unprecedented sanctions.

Chinese President Xi visits Central Asia ahead of scheduled meeting with Putin

Their first face-to-face meeting since the start of the war – held on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Samarkand – comes at a fragile time for both leaders, testing just how limitless this friendship truly is.

Russian forces have suffered staggering losses on the battlefield in Ukraine. Beijing, meanwhile, finds itself increasingly at odds with Western countries over Taiwan and human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

For Putin, the meeting sends a crucial message that he remains a global player, with friends who share his authoritarian views and determination to create a new world order in which the United States no longer dominates.

For Xi, his first trip abroad in nearly three years marks his diplomatic re-emergence ahead of a party congress in October as he hopes to secure an unprecedented third term.

“It is of course a show of mutual support and solidarity, a message mainly for the United States and the West,” said Yun Sun, director of the China program at the Stimson Center.

Still, Xi is unlikely to offer Putin any more concrete support. That could risk a Western backlash that would exacerbate a growing list of national challenges, including a slowing Chinese economy, a housing crisis and public dissatisfaction with strict “zero covid” policies.

China has maintained a delicate balance in Russia’s war on Ukraine, calling for peace while endorsing Russian complaints that NATO was to blame for the alliance’s expansion. Beijing has attempted to provide moral support to Putin without outright supporting the invasion or sending financial or military aid that would attract secondary sanctions.

Committed to maintaining normal trade relations with Moscow, China continued to export goods to Russia and import Russian oil and gas. Bilateral trade grew 31% in the first eight months of 2022, according to data from China Customs.

“Concrete support for the war in Ukraine is unlikely,” Sun said. “Military support and assistance is not in the cards. China does not need to support Russia in the war; only he does not oppose it.

China is likely to continue with its approach, which some analysts have called “straddling beijingof diplomatic support for Russia in a partnership aimed at countering a Washington-led international order while respecting Western sanctions.

In recent days, however, China has signaled stronger support for Russia. Li Zhanshu, China’s third-highest leader, visited Moscow last week and stressed that Beijing had provided “coordinated action support” to Russia as it responded to security threats “on its doorstep”. .

A Russian reading of the meeting said Li expressed support for the war, but the Chinese version was more tempered by saying that Li said China “fully understands and supports” Russia’s security interests.

Despite China’s efforts to strike a balance, Xi’s meeting with Putin will raise more questions about China’s position in the conflict.

“The trip aligns with Mr. Xi’s strategic vision of close ties with Moscow, but meeting the Russian leader could make it harder for Xi to claim that he is somehow not allowing the aggression from Russia,” said Joseph Torigian, assistant professor specializing in Russia and Russia. China at American University.

The rapid loss of territory in Ukraine reveals the wear and tear of the Russian army

At the start of the talks, the Kremlin described Russian-Chinese relations as “at an unprecedented level”, saying it “attaches great importance to China’s balanced approach to the Ukraine crisis”.

The Kremlin says the partnership between Moscow and Beijing ensures “global and regional stability”, although Russia’s war against Ukraine has destabilized the region, creating particular uncertainties in Central Asia.

“Countries together stand for the formation of a just, democratic and multipolar world order based on international law and the central role of the United Nations,” a Kremlin statement said.

In Uzbekistan, Xi faces the added difficulty of maintaining neutrality while attending a summit with Central Asian countries, most of which oppose the war and are worried about a possible Russian incursion into their territories. .

Before flying to Samarkand, Xi traveled to Kazakhstan where he met President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev on a symbolically important first stop, where he appeared to send a subtle message about the war in Ukraine, promising to strongly support Kazakhstan’s efforts to protect its independence, sovereignty and territory. integrity, “regardless of international developments”.

Russia has been angered by Kazakhstan’s refusal to endorse war or recognize the independence of two proxy Russian “republics” in eastern Ukraine.

Like Ukraine, Kazakhstan has a large Russian-speaking component, around 18% of the population, concentrated in the north of the country. Along with Moscow’s oft-stated historic mission to “protect” Russian-speakers around the world – one of the reasons it gave for the Ukrainian invasion – they are seen as a source of insecurity.

Xi’s trips to Central Asia are part of long-term efforts to establish better trade routes and connectivity in the region, a task that is increasingly urgent as China faces the possibility of conflict in the region. the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea that could impede shipping access. ways.

To protest a visit to Taiwan by US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, China in August launched large-scale military exercises simulating a blockade of the main island of Taiwan, triggering what has become the fourth Taiwan Strait crisis.

“That makes this trip very important because Xi is basically there with a mission to convince Central Asian leaders that it’s still important to have a strong relationship with China. [and to] please consider our goals and what we can give you,” said Niva Yau, Senior Fellow at the OSCE Academy, a foreign policy think tank in Kyrgyzstan.

In Central Asia, where countries have had to navigate for years between two giant powers locked in silent competition, a diminished Putin could give Beijing a chance to expand its footprint.

“The saying goes, China has deep pockets and Russia has the guns,” said Theresa Fallon, director of the Russia Europe Asia Center for Studies in Brussels. “The question now is, while Russia’s military footprint may be shrinking in the region, will China’s grow?”


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