Xi Jinping’s Russia visit shows his support to Putin
Putin welcomed Xi Jinping at the Kremlin on Monday, just days after the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague accused the Russian President of committing war crimes in Ukraine and issued a warrant for his arrest.
Xi started his three-day visit to Russia – his first since his strategic ally Vladimir Putin began his unprovoked invasion of Ukraine last year – as the Chinese leader seeks to portray himself as a peacebroker despite deep skepticism in Kyiv and the West.
Putin hopes that Xi’s three-day visit will lend legitimacy to his invasion of Ukraine and that China might pledge material support to help his military fight it.
Ukraine is expected to be a key point of discussion during Xi’s visit, which will be closely watched for any potential impact on an entrenched conflict that has killed tens of thousands and triggered a mass humanitarian crisis.
“In the last few years, China has made a colossal leap forward,” Putin told Xi, sitting side by side with him at the Kremlin on Monday afternoon. “In the whole world, this evokes interest, and unfortunately even envy.”
China has billed the trip a “journey of friendship, cooperation and peace,” amid a push from Beijing to frame itself as a key proponent for the resolution of the conflict. But Xi’s trip is likely to be seen in some Western capitals as a ringing endorsement of the Russian leader in the face of broad international condemnation of his war.
Putin once again claimed to Xi that he is “always open to the negotiation process” during a publicized portion of Monday’s meeting, despite his repeated refusal to engage with Kyiv on a withdrawal from Ukrainian land.
Western leaders have expressed skepticism about China’s potential role as a peacemaker and its claimed neutrality. The United States and its allies have instead since last month warned that China is considering sending lethal aid to Russia for its war effort, which Beijing has denied.
Kyiv is also expected to be closely watching the proceedings, and reiterated on Monday that any plan for peace must start with a Russian exit from its territory.
“We expect Beijing to use its influence on Moscow to make it put an end to the aggressive war against Ukraine,” Ukrainian Foreign Ministry spokesman Oleg Nikolenko said.
“Restoring territorial integrity of Ukraine should be at the core of every diplomatic effort,” he said. “We stand ready to engage in a closer dialogue with China in order to restore peace in Ukraine in accordance with the principles enshrined in the UN Charter, and the latest UNGA resolution on this matter.”
After his trip to Moscow, Xi may call Putin’s nemesis, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, according to one person familiar with the matter. It would be Xi’s first direct contact with Zelenskyy since the full-scale invasion and a sign of the constraints China sees on its alliance with Russia, at a time when Beijing wants to assert credentials as a potential peacemaker.
Xi’s visit comes days after the ICC essentially made Putin a wanted man in the 123 countries that recognize the court, deepening the Russian leader’s isolation from the West as he continues a bloody and costly war in Ukraine.
The Chinese leader was expected to meet with Putin later on Monday afternoon local time. He was greeted on his arrival at Vnukovo airport near Moscow by Dmitry Chernyshenko, one of Russia’s 10 deputy prime ministers, and a Russian military band, but Putin himself was not present for the meet-and-greet.
Russian media later showed Xi’s motorcade driving through the city ahead of three days of meetings, in which he is expected to tout a supposed framework to end the conflict that has earned a lukewarm reception from the West.
China has recently sought to revamp its image, positing itself as a proponent of peace and defending its relationship with Russia as good for global stability. Last month, Beijing released a vaguely worded position paper on the “political solution” to the conflict in Ukraine.
On Friday following the announcement of Xi’s Moscow trip, the White House expressed concerns about potential proposals from China that would be “one-sided and reflect only the Russian perspective.”
For example, a proposal for a ceasefire – which China has repeatedly called for – would merely provide a way for Russia to regroup before launching a reprisal, said John Kirby, spokesman for the National Security Council.
The visit is expected to provide a platform for the two countries to further deepen their close strategic alignment, which spans diplomatic coordination, joint military training and robust trade.
In a statement released after Xi landed on Monday, the Chinese leader said: “In the face of a turbulent and changing world, China is willing to continue to work with Russia to firmly safeguard the international order.”
Putin and Xi both touted the “new impetus” their meeting would bring to their bilateral relationship in separate letters published in each other’s national state-run media outlets ahead of the visit.
Both also used the letters to decry “hegemony” – an allusion to their shared aim of pushing back against what they see as a US-led world order.
Xi will need to tread carefully during his visit to Moscow. At stake for the Chinese leader is whether he can both bolster ties with a partner China sees as crucial to countering that perceived US dominance, while not alienating a Europe that has become increasingly wary of the China-Russia rapport.
Putin launched his invasion days after he and Xi declared a “no limits” partnership last February.
Since that time China has claimed neutrality, but backed Kremlin rhetoric blaming NATO for the conflict, refused to condemn the invasion, and continued to support Moscow financially by significantly increasing purchases of Russian fuel.
Zelensky has in the past publicly expressed an interest in speaking with Xi about the conflict, though communication between the two countries has not reached higher than Ukraine’s ministerial level since the war began.
Ukrainian, Chinese and US officials all declined last week to confirm a potential virtual meeting between Zelensky and Xi, following a Wall Street Journal report that the two were planning to speak for the first time after Xi’s then-potential Moscow trip.
In contrast, this week’s state visit marks the fortieth meeting between Putin and Xi since the Chinese leader came to power in 2012.
The personal chemistry between the two authoritarian leaders is widely seen as a key driver of tightening ties between the countries in recent years – and will also be closely scrutinized during the visit.
Past meetings between the leaders have put that rapport on full display, with photo-ops including Putin presenting Xi with ice cream on his 66th birthday during a 2019 meeting in Tajikistan, and the two cooking Russian pancakes together on the sidelines of a forum in Vladivostok in 2018.
The two last met in person in September during a Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit, part of Xi’s first overseas trip following nearly three years without travel during the pandemic.
Putin, who referred to Xi as his “good old friend” in his letter published in Chinese state media Monday, is expected to play up the meeting domestically as proof that Russia is not isolated on the world’s stage.
But with the Ukraine war looming over the visit, it remains to be seen how much Xi too will seek to play up those optics.
Both leaders, however, have already set the stage for the meeting to increase bilateral cooperation.
During the visit they would “jointly adopt a new vision, a new blueprint and new measures for the growth of China-Russia comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination in the years to come,” Xi wrote in his letter published Monday in Russian state media.
The meeting is expected to start with a one-on-one meeting followed by an “informal lunch” Monday, with negotiations set to take place Tuesday, a Kremlin spokesperson said last week.
While relations with Russia remain important, China has a limited opportunity if it wants to stabilise ties with bigger trading partners in the west.
Xi will have a chance to meet US president Joe Biden at two summits this year but with a US election next year, the chances of further 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 these meetings will be coloured by how far Xi backs Russia in Ukraine.
For this reason, Beijing’s efforts to paint itself as a mediator are important, analysts say. China this month enjoyed a rare success in conflict resolution when it brokered a deal to restore diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Solving the Ukraine conflict would be far harder, analysts say. China’s position paper last month failed to condemn the Russian invasion and contained thinly veiled criticisms of the west and Nato.
China “lacks the status of an impartial mediator in the Ukraine conflict because of its substantial support of Russia”, said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul. “For China to be helpful, it should not suggest what Kyiv can compromise but rather find a face-saving way for Moscow to pull back forces.”
Contact between Xi and Zelenskyy would represent a concession from China to western scepticism. 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 peacemaker against giving any ground to the US.
Beijing viewed the Ukraine conflict as a proxy struggle pitching Russia against Nato and the US and “Zelenskyy lacks decision-making power”, said one expert at a Chinese think-tank in Beijing.
“All Zelenskyy can do is to forward the message to Joe Biden. President Xi has no need to endorse Zelenskyy by meeting him in person. China respects Ukraine’s interests. But that’s different from prioritising US interests.”
Part of the article was reported by CNN.