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    Wednesday, June 19, 2024

    China and Russia’s leaders hail their opposition to U.S.-led world order

    Russian President Vladimir Putin touted his country’s relations with China as a “stabilizing” force in the world as he began his two-day state visit Thursday. He vowed to deepen economic ties with China in ways that are “reliably protected from the influence of third parties,” referring to the impacts of U.S.-led sanctions following his invasion of Ukraine.

    Putin called the Sino-Russian relationship a “benchmark of cooperation” and thanked Chinese President Xi Jinping for his efforts to resolve the war in Ukraine. While China has released a vague peace plan and called for an end to the war, it has not expressed strong criticism of Russia’s unprovoked invasion and seizure of territory - clear breaches of the U.N. charter.

    “We have always firmly supported each other on issues involving each other’s core interests and major concerns,” Xi said, calling Putin an “old friend” and congratulating him on securing a new term as president.

    Putin and Xi reaffirmed their shared vision of a “multipolar” world order, in which countries led by China and Russia can operate by a different set of rules than the ones set by the United States and other liberal democracies.

    “Together, we defend the principles of justice and a democratic world order that reflects multipolar realities,” Putin said.

    The two leaders spoke before reporters following their meeting in Beijing and after signing bilateral documents and a joint statement on deepening their partnership and strategic cooperation.

    Putin was given a red-carpet welcome and greeted with an elaborate ceremony that featured the firing of cannons, a squad of jumping and cheering children and a massive orchestra playing the popular Soviet-era song “Moscow Nights,” written in 1955.

    China is one of Russia’s only remaining trading partners and diplomatic allies following the invasion and has become a critical economic lifeline as Russia copes with mounting Western sanctions. Putin arrived with a large delegation that includes Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, new Defense Minister Andrei Belousov, several deputy prime ministers, and leaders of state-owned enterprises.

    On Thursday, Putin is also expected to meet Chinese Premier Li Qiang, who is theoretically responsible for the country’s economy.

    Xi and Putin are scheduled to mark 75 years of diplomatic relations at a celebratory concert and hold a one-on-one meeting, along with a walk through a park.

    The day is scheduled to end with a closed-door meeting over dinner with Xi, Putin and four top Russian officials: Belousov, Lavrov, Secretary of the Security Council Sergei Shoigu (the former defense minister) and Yuri Ushakov, a top foreign policy adviser. Putin said he plans to discuss the war in Ukraine over dinner.

    On Friday, Putin is scheduled to attend the opening of the China-Russia trade fair in Harbin, a northern city close to the border with Russia, highlighting the countries’ increasingly close economic ties.

    The trip underscores both leaders’ norm-busting tenures and autocratic tendencies: Xi visited Moscow in March last year, a few months after securing a third term as leader, while Putin’s arrival in Beijing marks his first overseas trip since securing a fifth term as president this month.

    China’s ongoing diplomatic and material support for Russia and the war against Ukraine - even as Beijing portrays itself as a potential mediator - troubles democracies, including the United States and those in western Europe. In France last week, Xi declined to use his influence to pressure Moscow to end the war.

    Xi is particularly interested in Russia winning in Ukraine because of what it could mean for his oft-stated ambitions to take control of Taiwan, the island democracy that has never been ruled by the Chinese Communist Party but which Beijing considers a breakaway province.

    Xi has been closely watching to see what price Putin has been paying for using military force in Ukraine - and the extent of Western punishment for that force. Taiwan’s leaders - and other allies in the region, like Japan - have repeatedly warned that Ukraine today could be Taiwan tomorrow.

    Analysts say Putin and Xi are likely to double down on their transactional relationship during this week’s meetings.

    “Putin will push for more Chinese assistance in prosecuting his invasion of Ukraine. Xi will prod for further Russian support for China’s energy, food, and national security priorities,” said Ryan Hass, a former China director on the National Security Council during the Obama administration. He is now at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

    “They will wrap their respective efforts within an aura of bonhomie and linked arms against Western pressure on them both,” Hass said.

    The two leaders declared their countries had a “no limits” partnership just weeks before Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. They have met regularly since, with Xi’s trip to Moscow last year and the Russian leader traveling to China seven months later to commemorate a decade of Xi’s signature Belt and Road project.

    Their mutual economic interests have grown since the invasion. China’s trade with Russia hit a record $240 billion in 2023 - up 63 percent from 2021, before the invasion, and already reaching a goal they planned for 2024. During that time, exports of Chinese electronics needed to produce precision-guided weapons systems saw a significant spike, Chinese customs data shows.

    But trade flows have increased in both directions. Russia last year became China’s biggest oil supplier, as Beijing took advantage of its discounted prices. Western sanctions have isolated Russia, which has relatively few big customers left, and Moscow has turned to China and India as its primary gas and oil customers.

    Thursday’s meetings will give the two leaders a chance to assess the state of their cooperation and for Xi to better understand Putin’s thinking on the war, said Wan Qingsong, an associate professor at the Center for Russian Studies at East China Normal University in Shanghai.

    “It is time to compare notes with China now that Putin believes Russia is gaining an upper hand against Ukraine and has a bigger say in whether and when to end the war,” Wan said. “China may have a different assessment but needs to listen to what Russia has to say.”

    The war has become the organizing principle for Russia’s foreign policy, said Alexander Gabuev, a Russia and China expert with the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center. Every relationship is assessed through three elements, he said: What a country can bring to advance Putin’s war effort in Ukraine; what a country can do for Russia’s revenue streams to counter the impact of Western sanctions; and whether a country can help Moscow push back against the West.

    China checks all three boxes, he said. “It shows that Russia doesn’t have any more important foreign partner than China.”

    The question is what tangible actions will result from their meetings beyond lofty rhetoric about their partnership. But the most consequential outcomes of their meeting are not likely to be shared publicly, Gabuev said.

    Those issues include ways the Russians can circumvent Western sanctions and “how much China will be willing to give at what pace and what visibility, given U.S. concerns and threat of sanctions” on China, he said. They would also discuss Russians potentially sharing designs for key technologies and weapons with the Chinese, and the overall strategic direction of their bilateral relations, he said.

    “There will be the underwater part of the iceberg,” Gabuev said.

    Others played down the significance of Putin’s visit. Shen Dingli, a Shanghai-based scholar of international relations, said the economic ties between China and Russia are due to a strategic but short-term dependence on each other.

    “It’s more of symbolism that soothes Russia’s isolation. … China’s purchase of Russia’s resources is an act of sympathy,” Shen said.

    He noted the absence of Chinese representation at Putin’s recent inauguration. China seeks balance in protecting its interests and is unlikely to adopt a stance totally aligned with Russia on controversial topics such invading Ukraine. “One cannot say through a joint statement that Russia has not invaded. Otherwise, how can we partner with other countries in the world?”

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    Lee and Wu reported from Taipei, Taiwan. Lyric Li in Seoul and Natalia Abbakumova in Riga, Latvia, contributed to this report.

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