Days after Vladimir Putin was hit with an international 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 Russia’s president — but is also set to show the red lines in what the pair last year dubbed a “no limits partnership”.
Putin, who travelled defiantly to occupied Ukrainian territory at the weekend after the International Criminal Court warrant, will hope that Xi’s three-day visit from Monday will lend legitimacy to his invasion of Ukraine and that China might pledge material support to help his military fight it.
But there are signs that Xi will remain guarded over the potential costs of friendship with Russia’s leader, particularly in Europe as Beijing tries to boost trade after its zero-Covid policy savaged its economy last year. And despite warnings from the US that China was considering sending arms to Russia, there is as yet little evidence of substantial flows of weapons between the two countries.
After his trip to Moscow Xi may call Putin’s nemesis, Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, according to one person familiar with the matter. It would be Xi’s first direct contact with Zelenskyy since the full 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.
“I think he will do the call,” said Yu Jie, a senior research fellow on China in the Asia-Pacific Program at Chatham House. “China simply cannot afford to become a rival of both the US and Europe.”
Beijing’s close ties with Moscow despite the war, which analysts have dubbed “pro-Russia neutrality”, are damaging its standing in Europe. While China’s position paper last month on a potential settlement in Ukraine was met with scepticism in the west, it is a way for Beijing to reposition itself and see how the conflict evolves, analysts say.
The challenge for Xi is to strike a balance between those concerns and the benefits of closer ties to Moscow at a time of mounting tension with the US and its allies.
“The Ukraine war has intensified the great power rivalry and made the geopolitical faultlines between the US and China even more pronounced, and in response China and Russia are now really consolidating their alignment,” said Alexander Korolev, an expert on China-Russia relations at the University of New South Wales in Sydney.
“China will need Russia for its impending confrontation with the US, which is becoming very real,” he added, pointing to closer military relations between the two countries and Beijing’s need to prepare alternative energy supply routes in case seaborne oil imports from the Middle East were blocked in any clash with the US over Taiwan.
As Europe and the US have imposed harsh sanctions on Russia, China’s trade with its neighbour has soared over the past year, jumping 34.3 per cent to a record Rmb1.28tn, according to Chinese state-controlled media. This year, natural gas imports from Russia are expected to rise by a third.
Trade with Beijing has given Russia an economic lifeline, making up for some lost oil sales to the US and Europe and supplying replacements for crucial western-made components such as microchips, 5G equipment and industrial machinery.
“[The Chinese] understand that this is a very beneficial moment for them to get Russia deeper in their pocket. They have a tremendous amount of leverage,” said Alexander Gabuev, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Putin’s framing of the war as part of a broader conflict with the west has drawn the two countries closer. Russia is a useful partner in China’s efforts to push back against the US “hegemon”, analysts say. Russia’s powerful security council secretary Nikolai Patrushev gave full-throated backing for Beijing’s stance on Taiwan when meeting China’s top diplomat Wang Yi last month.
“For Russia, the limitations that existed before are gone,” Gabuev said. “Putin is obsessed with this war, and the partnership brings him a lifeline to the economy, critical components for his military machine, and China a tool to push back against the US — because the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
Beijing and Moscow’s deepening ties led US secretary of state Antony Blinken to warn last month that any material Chinese support for Russia’s military would have “serious consequences” for relations with the US.
China has responded that the west is fuelling the conflict with its arms sales to Ukraine. “China was not the cause of or catalyst of the Ukraine crisis, nor did it provide weapons to any party in 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 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 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 he [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.”
Additional reporting by Sun Yu in Beijing, Kathrin Hille in Taipei and Edward White in Seoul