vLadimir Putin and Xi Jinping have met about 40 times since the Chinese leader assumed the presidency in 2012. In many ways, the camaraderie between the pair has come to define diplomatic relations between Moscow and Beijing over the past decade.
Xi made his first overseas visit to Moscow as president in 2013 and this latest visit comes next week after being handed an unprecedented third term as president. During that time, greetings between Xi and Putin have evolved from “dear president” to “dear friend” and later to “my old friend”. Last year, just weeks before Moscow’s troops invaded Ukraine, the leaders met and announced a borderless partnership between their two nations.
Historically, relations between China and Russia have been fraught with mistrust and confrontation, especially at the height of their Cold War schism in the late 1960s, but Putin and Xi have changed the dynamic. During his last visit to Moscow in 2019, Xi spoke of his “deep personal friendship” with his Russian counterpart. “In the past six years, we have met almost 30 times. Russia is the country I have visited most often and President Putin is my best friend and colleague,” Xi said. Both leaders share a goal to change the world order, and they will continue to pursue it.
However, the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 has brought the nature of their relationship into sharp focus and it is clear that Xi and Beijing have the upper hand. Trade between the two nations has been growing steadily for years, but reached a record 1.28 trillion yuan (£153 billion) in 2022, according to Chinese data. That represented an increase of about 30 percent from 2021, driven in part by Chinese companies picking up oil and coal at a discount even as other governments began to shun Russian fuel, part of a wide-ranging regime of sanctions from Western countries seeking to punish Moscow for his war.
Putin has tried to portray Western support for Ukraine as an existential threat to Russia, accusing NATO members of getting directly involved in conflicts by supplying arms and other aid to Ukraine. Overall, it suited Xi well to support that suggestion, at least in terms of what Beijing sees as the West’s disproportionate influence on the world. Beijing has not condemned the invasion either. At a time when both China and Russia are dealing with frosty relations with the US — including trade (in Beijing’s case) and security — it makes sense that China isn’t making the most of its relationship with Russia.
But while Putin has been cornered by his invasion – he has to lash out at the West, leaving his country increasingly isolated on the world stage – it is clear that China has other options and wants to use them. In October, Putin said relations with China were at an “unprecedented level” and that Xi was his “good friend”, with the president appearing to sense Beijing might be more uncomfortable with the situation in Ukraine. In reality, Xi — who has made himself the most dominant leader China has had since Mao Zedong — clearly has more global ambitions. This month, Beijing brokered a détente between Iran and Saudi Arabia, longtime Middle Eastern rivals. While it released a peace plan for Ukraine last month. The proposal is vague, but emphasizes that China is seeking a role as a global mediator.
As for this latest meeting between Putin and Xi in Moscow, a Russian official said the pair would discuss both the conflict in Ukraine and “military-technical cooperation”. The Kremlin said “important” bilateral documents would be signed, without elaborating. Wang Wenbin, spokesman for China’s foreign ministry, said Xi’s visit would strengthen economic partnerships and promote “peace”. China has said it will take “an objective and fair position” on the war in Ukraine and “play a constructive role in advancing peace talks”
The goal for Putin is clear: he needs Xi completely. The fact that the pair will have an informal lunch on Monday, ahead of more formal talks on Tuesday, shows that the Russian president wants to make clear how close the nations are. To Xi, he seems happy to deal with Russia as long as it suits his country’s interests. More trade will always be helpful, while more military cooperation would also have benefits. Moscow could improve China’s naval capabilities by allowing its fleet access to Russian ports in the Far East and sharing technology. There are also reports that Xi will speak with Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky in the aftermath of his trip – their first contact since the Russian invasion.
The US has expressed “deep concern” that China could try to position itself as a peacemaker by promoting a ceasefire. But any stoppage on this issue would not bring a just and lasting peace, White House national security spokesman John Kirby said Friday. The US has also suggested that China is considering sending weapons to Russia – an allegation China has been willing to deny.
Against that backdrop, don’t expect the Putin-Xi bromance to end anytime soon — but it’s clear who’s in power now.