Challenges for Russia and China Test a ‘No-Limits’ Friendship

BEIJING — The summit this week between President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and Xi Jinping of China is a show of force by two autocratic leaders united against what they consider American hegemony. It is also a moment of mutual weakness as Russia suffers losses in Ukraine and China endures an economic slowdown.

They come to the meeting, expected to take place later this week in Uzbekistan, with their own agendas and their own challenges that will test an important relationship both have described as a friendship with “no limits.”

Moscow needs Beijing. Russia’s recent routs on the battlefields of Ukraine, coupled with the broad damage inflicted by Western sanctions, have made Chinese support all the more important. China has emerged as a major buyer of Russian commodities, purchases that have helped replenish Moscow’s coffers.

Beijing, though, remains cautious. It wants to project strength in the increasingly acrimonious competition with the United States and can’t afford for its main partner in an authoritarian alliance to face a humiliating defeat. But providing substantial, additional help to Russia, either economically or militarily, risks running afoul of Western sanctions and imperiling China’s economy.

“Xi’s China has been carrying out an exquisite tightrope walk with regard to Russia,” said Rana Mitter, a professor of history and politics at Oxford University. “It is keen to show support for Russia in general, but finds active support for an invasion too politically embarrassing to contemplate and wants Moscow to resolve matters one way or another.”

Image matters for Mr. Xi as he prepares to secure a third term at a pivotal Communist Party congress in Beijing next month. His trip this week, during which he will attend a regional summit in Uzbekistan and visit Kazakhstan, marks the first time Mr. Xi has traveled abroad since the start of the pandemic and signals just how much he values the relationship. The meeting with Mr. Putin will give the Chinese leader a chance to look like a global statesman, playing well to a home audience.

Russia also provides much-needed backing for China’s agenda. When House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan last month in defiance of China’s claims to the self-ruled democracy, the Kremlin was quick to support Beijing’s stance, describing the trip as “provocative” and pledging “absolute solidarity with China.”

But China has tied itself to a war that has so far backfired for Russia. Any serious weakening of Mr. Putin’s dominance in Russia could hurt Beijing’s position at a time when the leadership is dealing with the political and economic fallout from its strict Covid policies.

The question confronting China is whether to double down or let Russia navigate the setbacks on its own. Both strategies carry risks, and most experts expect China to choose a middle path of continued economic support without openly circumventing sanctions or providing outright military assistance.

China, which has avoided describing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a war, appears to be tempering its bets. When Mr. Xi’s second-highest-ranking deputy, Li Zhanshu, met with Mr. Putin in Russia last week, Chinese state media emphasized the two countries’ shared admiration but steered clear of overt advocacy for Russia’s actions in Ukraine.

China’s official Xinhua news agency said Mr. Li has told Mr. Putin that, “political mutual trust, strategic coordination and pragmatic cooperation between the two countries have reached an unprecedented level.”

Xinhua made no mention of Ukraine, even as Russia state media claimed Beijing backed the invasion, portraying Mr. Li as having said that China “understands and supports Russia” particularly “on the situation in Ukraine.”

“China keeps avoiding military involvement in any degree in Russia’s war and will continue to do so, especially when the Russians have been in a drastic failure situation in the field,” said Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing. “China’s diplomatic and political support or sympathy will not really help them, though dramatic purchases of their energy since April help a little non-militarily.”

Mr. Putin, who describes his war as part of a battle against nefarious Western powers that threaten Russia’s very existence, appears to find China’s middle ground vexing. He suggested as much last week in describing the long-running negotiations for a new pipeline that could allow Russia to export more Siberian natural gas to China rather than Europe — a matter of critical importance to Moscow as Europe rushes to reduce energy imports from Russia.

“Our Chinese friends are tough bargainers,” Mr. Putin said at a conference in the Russian port city of Vladivostok focused on increasing economic ties with Asia. “Naturally, they proceed from their national interests in any deal, which is the only way to go.”

Mr. Putin will go into the meeting with Mr. Xi looking to China as a lifeline at perhaps Russia’s most tenuous moment since the invasion began in February. Russian forces have recently lost more than one thousand square miles of territory in Ukraine, creating new political headwinds for Mr. Putin — even from some of his longtime supporters, now frustrated by Russia’s bumbling war effort.

At this week’s meeting, Mr. Putin hopes to close a deal for the natural gas pipeline. Russia also needs access to China’s high-tech exports and Chinese currency to pay for those goods, since Russia’s access to dollars is severely restricted.

“China has more leverage than Russia,” said Alexander Gabuev, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

As Western countries shun Moscow, it is the expanding ties with China that Mr. Putin points to most as proof that Russia cannot be isolated. It is a relationship to which Mr. Putin has devoted enormous effort, one that accelerated after relations with the West took a dive following Russia’s annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea in 2014.

The honor of meeting Mr. Xi in person is sure to be extolled by Russia’s state media as evidence of Mr. Putin’s continued acumen on the world stage. “Our relations have reached unprecedented heights,” Mr. Putin said at the Vladivostok conference.

The century-old relationship between the two nations is steeped in ideology and history. Moscow was crucial to the Chinese Communist Party’s founding, early survival and eventual victory in 1949 in China’s Civil War. Relatively close relations have continued, although they were interrupted by a rift in the 1960s so serious that the two countries fought border skirmishes.

Mr. Xi himself has a longstanding connection to Russia and Mr. Putin, whom he has met with 38 times. The Chinese leader’s father, Xi Zhongxun, a leading party figure in the 1950s, oversaw Soviet experts who came to China to help build the country’s heavy industry after the civil war, said Joseph Torigian, the author of an upcoming biography on the elder Mr. Xi.

Mr. Xi’s father visited Moscow, full of admiration. “He brought back mementos from Russia,” Mr. Torigian said, “that Xi Jinping later recalled.”

A week after he became China’s president in March 2013, Mr. Xi chose Russia for his first trip abroad and hinted in a speech there that the two countries would work together against the West.

“Currently, China and Russia are both in important periods of national revival, and bilateral relations have entered a new stage,” Mr. Xi said.

China now has the upper hand in the relationship, given its economic and military might. China’s economy was 10 times the size of Russia’s last year, before the war in Ukraine. From May through July, China bought record amounts of Russian oil at a deep discount and imported more Russian natural gas and coal.

Gazprom, the Russian gas giant, announced last week that China’s payments for gas from one pipeline would no longer be made in dollars or euros, but in Russian rubles and Chinese renminbi. Such deals make it easier for Russia to bypass Western banks and buy Chinese goods that are similar to high-tech Western products under export restrictions.

While China has sold many cars and other products that do not use Western technology to Russia, it appears to have avoided the riskier activity of reselling advanced Western technology. China appears to have refrained so far this year from shipping weapons to Russia, forcing Moscow to ask Iran and North Korea for military equipment.

China’s military has a long history of training with its Russian counterparts. Last week, China sent more than 2,000 People’s Liberation Army soldiers, 21 combat aircraft and three warships to participate in joint military exercises in eastern Russia.

It was the first time that China had sent air, land and naval forces to participate in the major military exercise, which Mr. Putin personally oversaw.

But Mr. Xi is unlikely to tie his country more closely to Russia than he did in February, when he declared the limitless friendship.

“I don’t really expect any sort of new statement to be made by Xi Jinping that would be perceived as more strategic support for Russia,” said Li Mingjiang, a specialist in China’s international relations at the National University of Singapore, “nor would I expect China to walk back from what has been said.”


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