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

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Through 75 years of diplomatic relations and the protracted war in Ukraine, China and Russia want the world to know that their ties are stronger than ever. That was the message blared through a pomp-filled welcome for Russia’s leader to Beijing meant to signal a unified alternative to the West.

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

The red-carpet welcome was followed by a 2½-hour meeting and a joint news conference, where the leaders signed declarations to deepen cooperation between their two nations.

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“China-Russia relations have withstood the test of time and become even stronger,” Xi said in televised remarks after a 2½-hour 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.”

The fanfare was another show of continued Chinese support for Russia, even as the U.S. has warned Xi against enabling Putin’s assault on Ukraine through enhanced trade and economic cooperation and as Xi has repeatedly expressed hopes for a peace agreement.

Putin’s two-day visit, which also includes a trip to the northeastern city of Harbin near Russia’s border, is his first international trip since starting his unprecedented fifth term as president amid a crackdown on his opposition.

“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 past 10 years to more than $240 billion.

Trade with China has helped keep Russia’s war efforts afloat, after sanctions following Putin’s invasion of Ukraine crippled its economy. While China has also benefited from Russia’s diplomatic support in its clashes with the West, that economic reliance has given Xi a slight upper hand.

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“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, China’s economic might has been a powerful determinant in the power balance. As Russia has made gains on the battlefield, that could tip the scales in Putin’s favor, Muraviev said.

“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.”

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.

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.

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“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.”

According to Russian 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 the Russian leader.

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.

“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 has stopped short of supplying 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.

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

“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.

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.

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.”

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The two leaders also said they would pursue more cultural exchanges, and Putin added that Russia would increase its purchases of Chinese electric vehicles, on which the U.S. just levied more tariffs in an attempt to protect its domestic industries from oversupply from China.

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

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