In talks with Putin amid Ukraine war, Xi calls Russia-China ties a 'strong driving force'

Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, and Russian President Vladimir Putin look toward each other as they shake hands prior to their talks in Beijing, China, on Thursday, May 16, 2024. (Sergei Bobylev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)
Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and Chinese President Xi Jinping appear together before their talks in Beijing on Thursday. (Sergei Bobylev / Kremlin Pool Photo/Sputnik via AP)

Russian President Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping put their countries’ partnership on red-carpet display in Beijing on Thursday, aiming to project a unified alternative to the West as each faces pressure amid Moscow’s war on Ukraine.

President Xi received Putin outside the Great Hall of the People while uniformed bands played, soldiers stood at attention and cannons and rifles fired.

The welcome and celebration of 75 years of diplomatic relations was followed by a 2½-hour meeting and a joint news conference, where the leaders signed declarations to deepen cooperation between their nations.

“China-Russia relations have withstood the test of time and become even stronger,” Xi said in televised remarks after the meeting with Putin. “The generational friendship and comprehensive cooperation between China and Russia have formed a strong driving force that allows us to move forward without fear of wind and rain.”

Putin’s two-day visit, his first international trip since starting his unprecedented fifth term as president amid a crackdown on his opposition, came as both countries faced pressure or isolation from the West. The U.S. has warned Xi against enabling Putin’s assault on Ukraine through enhanced trade and economic cooperation.

Read more: What do Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping want from each other?

“It’s all about symbolism,” said Alexey Muraviev, an associate professor of national security and strategic studies at Curtin University in Western Australia. “It is a stepping stone that will mark the turn in bilateral relations for the next five to six years.”

During the news conference, Xi referred to the meeting as a new start in history for the two nations, and touted rising bilateral trade that has nearly doubled in the last 10 years to more than $240 billion.

China has benefited from cheap energy imports from Russia, and Putin on Thursday said the country would buy more Chinese electric vehicles just as the U.S. has implemented tariffs on them.

But having China as a trade partner has been critical to keeping Russia’s war efforts afloat, after sanctions following Putin’s invasion of Ukraine crippled its economy. That economic reliance has given Xi a slight upper hand.

“Back in 1950 the Soviet Union was the big brother. Now the situation is different. With its economy, China is a bigger brother to Russia,” Muraviev said.

While Russia is more experienced in political negotiations, and has a more powerful military and nuclear arsenal, Muraviev said, China’s economic might has been a significant determinant in the power balance. As Russia has made gains on the battlefield, that could tip the scales in Putin’s favor.

“Given Russia’s current successes in Ukraine, it may put Putin in a stronger position with Xi,” he said. “He’s willing to negotiate, but on Russia’s terms.”

Read more: Chinese President Xi's trip to Europe: ‘Charm offensive’ or canny bid to divide the West?

Despite the exuberant commemoration of the 75th anniversary of diplomatic relations, the neighboring countries have often found themselves at odds.

Analysts have described their recent collaboration — a “no-limits” pact announced just before Russia’s full invasion of Ukraine — as a marriage of convenience and a desire to stand united against what they see as U.S. hegemony and containment.

Together, the two leaders pose a bigger threat to a common adversary and can work toward discrediting the U.S. on the global stage, said Philipp Ivanov, a China-Russia analyst and founder of the consultancy Geopolitical Risks + Strategy Practice.

“China and Russia are working together on making American economic power look replaceable,” Ivanov said. “If both can credibly demonstrate that they can survive and thrive under enormous U.S. pressure — and in Russia’s case, isolation — this is another nail in the coffin of the U.S.-led international order.”

Hu Xijin, the former editor in chief of the Global Times, the Communist Party tabloid, said on social media Thursday that China and Russia have been brought together out of necessity more than true alliance in cause.

“Right now China is facing full-scale suppression from the U.S. and so is Russia,” he said. “These two great countries becoming closer in strategy and in geopolitics is inevitable.”

Read more: As tensions grow, more Americans see China as an enemy

According to the Russian state news agency Tass, Putin said in his talks with Xi that the cooperation between Russia and China is not directed against a particular country.

“Our cooperation in world affairs today serves as one of the main stabilizing factors in the international arena,” Tass quoted Putin as saying.

Still, there are boundaries to how far Xi will go for Putin. On Thursday, Xi referred to Russia as a good partner, a good neighbor and a good friend. But both leaders have stopped short of declaring a formal alliance, indicating a reluctance to commit to a full backing of the other country.

Read more: News analysis: Why Putin is raising the specter of nuclear weapons again

“They both have unique agendas. The other side might not want to get fully involved in that,” Muraviev said. “They recognize once they slip down that road, it might get uncomfortable for both of them.”

China also has not supplied arms to Russia in its war against Ukraine, but has boosted trade in other goods such as components that Western officials said could be used to make weapons.

“If China purports on the one hand to want good relations with Europe and other countries, it can’t on the other hand be fueling what is the biggest threat to European security since the end of the Cold War,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said during a trip to Beijing last month.

The U.S. has sought to deter China from assisting Russia, even drafting sanctions on some Chinese banks for aiding the war effort, media reports said.

“Xi is not prepared to pay a price for supporting Putin or Russia,” said Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute at University of London. He said he expected the countries would try to determine “how they can work closer together, with China strengthening its support for Russia without triggering secondary sanctions against China itself.”

Read more: Blinken, in a somber visit to Kyiv, reasserts U.S. support for Ukraine

As it has helped Russia withstand diplomatic and economic isolation, China has offered peace plans but has not called for Russia to withdraw its troops from Ukraine.

Read more: The latest threat to China? The rise of the DINKs

As it has helped Russia withstand diplomatic and economic isolation, China has offered peace plans but has not called for Russia to withdraw from Ukraine. Xi has framed China as a neutral party in the conflict and a potential mediator. In the news conference with Putin, Xi said he advocates for “a political solution to the Ukraine crisis.”

In an interview with China’s official state news agency Xinhua ahead of his arrival, Putin said he is open to a dialogue on Ukraine.

“We have never refused to negotiate,” Putin said in the Xinhua article. “But such negotiations must take into account the interests of all countries involved in the conflict, including ours.”

Special correspondent Xin-yun Wu in Taipei, Taiwan, contributed to this report.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.