Xi Jinping will test the limits of his friendship with Putin during a state visit to Russia

Days after Vladimir Putin was slapped with an international arrest warrant for alleged war crimes in Ukraine, Xi Jinping’s first state visit to Moscow in four years is a demonstration of the Chinese leader’s commitment to the Russian president – but is also expected to show the red lines in what last year the pair dubbed a “limitless partnership”.

Putin, who defiantly visited occupied Ukrainian territory over the weekend after the International Criminal Court warrant, hopes Xi’s three-day visit from Monday will lend legitimacy to his invasion of Ukraine and that China could promise material support to help its army fight it. .

But there are signs Xi will remain cautious about the potential costs of befriending the Russian leader, particularly in Europe as Beijing tries to boost trade after its zero-Covid policy wrecked its economy last year. . And despite warnings from the United States that China was considering sending weapons to Russia, there is still little evidence of significant arms flows between the two countries.

After his trip to Moscow, Xi could call Putin’s nemesis, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, according to a person familiar with the matter. It would be Xi’s first direct contact with Zelensky since the all-out invasion and a sign of the constraints China sees on its alliance with Russia, at a time when Beijing wants to assert its credentials as a potential peacemaker.

“I think he will make the call,” said Yu Jie, senior China researcher with the Asia-Pacific Program at Chatham House. “China simply cannot afford to become a rival to both the United States and Europe.”

Beijing’s close wartime ties with Moscow, which analysts have called “pro-Russian neutrality,” are hurting its standing in Europe. While China’s position paper last month on a potential settlement in Ukraine was met with skepticism in the West, it is a way for Beijing to reposition itself and see how the conflict unfolds, analysts say.

The challenge for Xi is to balance those concerns with the benefits of closer ties with Moscow at a time of growing tension with the United States and its allies.

“The Ukraine war has intensified great power rivalry and made the geopolitical rifts between the United States and China even more pronounced, and in response, China and Russia are now truly cementing their alignment,” Alexander said. Korolev, an expert on Sino-Russian relations at the University of New South Wales in Sydney.

“China will need Russia for its imminent confrontation with the United States, which is becoming very real,” he added, stressing the closer military relations between the two countries and the need for Beijing to prepare ways alternative energy supply in the event of oil imports by sea from the Middle East. have been blocked in any confrontation with the United States over Taiwan.

As Europe and the United States imposed tough sanctions on Russia, China’s trade with its neighbor has soared over the past year, jumping 34.3% to a record high. Rmb 1.28 billion, according to Chinese state-controlled media. This year, natural gas imports from Russia are expected to increase by a third.

Trade with Beijing has given Russia an economic lifeline, offsetting some lost oil sales in the United States and Europe and providing replacements for crucial Western-made components such as microchips, 5G equipment and machinery. industrial.

“[The Chinese] understand that this is a very beneficial time for them to have Russia deeper in their pocket. They have tremendous leverage,” said Alexander Gabuev, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Putin’s framing of the war as part of a larger conflict with the West has brought the two countries closer together. Russia is a useful partner in China’s efforts to push back US “hegemony”, analysts say. Powerful Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev unreservedly backed Beijing’s stance on Taiwan during his meeting with senior Chinese diplomat Wang Yi last month.

“For Russia, the limitations that existed before have disappeared,” Gabuev said. “Putin is obsessed with this war, and the partnership gives him a lifeline for the economy, essential components for his military machine, and China a tool to push back against the United States – because the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

Deepening ties between Beijing and Moscow led US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to warn last month that any Chinese material support for the Russian military would have “serious consequences” for relations with the United States.

China replied that the West was fueling the conflict with its arms sales to Ukraine. “China was neither the cause nor the catalyst of the Ukrainian crisis, and has not supplied arms to any party to the conflict,” Qin Gang, China’s foreign minister, said this month.

Yet, while relations with Russia remain important, China has a limited opportunity if it is to stabilize relations with larger Western trading partners.

Xi will have the opportunity to meet US President Joe Biden at two summits this year, but with a US election next year, the chances of rapprochement with Washington will be limited. And while several European leaders, including French President Emmanuel Macron, plan to visit China this year, the success of those meetings will be colored by the extent to which Xi supports Russia in Ukraine.

For this reason, Beijing’s efforts to portray itself as a mediator are important, analysts say. This month, China achieved rare success in resolving the conflict when it brokered an agreement to restore diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Resolving the Ukrainian conflict would be much more difficult, analysts say. China’s position paper last month did not condemn the Russian invasion and contained thinly veiled criticism of the West and NATO.

China “does not have the status of an impartial mediator in the Ukraine conflict because of its substantial support for Russia,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international studies at Ewha University in Seoul. “For China to be useful, it should not suggest what kyiv can compromise, but rather find a face-saving way for Moscow to withdraw its forces.”

Contact between Xi and Zelenskyy would represent a concession by China to Western skepticism. But any contact was likely to be virtual rather than in person and the results inconclusive, analysts said, as Xi sought to balance China’s desire to play the role of peacemaker against ceding ground to the UNITED STATES.

Beijing saw the Ukraine conflict as a proxy struggle between Russia and NATO and the United States and “Zelensky lacks decision-making power,” said an expert at a Chinese think tank in Beijing.

” All that he [Zelenskyy] can do is deliver the message to Joe Biden. President Xi does not need to endorse Zelenskyy by meeting him in person. China respects Ukraine’s interests. But that’s different from putting American interests first.

Additional reporting by Sun Yu in Beijing, Kathrin Hille in Taipei and Edward White in Seoul


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