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China’s Xi Jinping begins Moscow visit

China's President Xi Jinping, left, shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Mikhail Metzel/Tass/Abaca Press/TNS)
March 20, 2023

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

Chinese President Xi Jinping landed in Moscow on Monday, beginning a state visit where, analysts said, economic ties and the war in Ukraine are expected to dominate the agenda.

This is Xi’s first foreign trip after being re-elected for a rare third term. Russia was also the first country he visited after he was elected president in 2013.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Friday that the two leaders would discuss the “further development of comprehensive partnership and strategic cooperation between Russia and China” during Xi’s trip, which lasts until Wednesday.

Military-technical cooperation and energy issues will be high on the agenda.

They will sign a joint statement on a plan to develop key areas of Russian-Chinese economic cooperation until 2030, according to Russian presidential aide Yuri Ushakov

The two sides also plan to sign “more than 10” documents on various areas of cooperation, Ushakov told a press briefing.

The international focus is on the Ukraine war as Beijing last month released a 12-point position on the political settlement of the Ukraine crisis.

President Xi’s visit “will uphold an objective and fair position on the Ukraine crisis and play a constructive role in promoting talks for peace,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said on Friday.

Also on Friday, the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Vladimir Putin for war crimes related to the suspected abductions of children from Ukraine.

Analysts say the warrant would not affect Xi’s visit in any significant ways because both Russia and China are not state parties of the Rome Statute and do not recognize the court’s jurisdiction.

Ukraine peace plan?

“The Ukraine war will no doubt be the top issue for the two leaders’ meeting,” said Baohui Zhang, professor of Government and International Affairs at Hong Kong’s Ling nan University.

“China should have concerns for the prospect of Russia’s eventual defeat and the following geopolitical consequences,” Zhang told Radio Free Asia (RFA).

“Moreover, China is sandwiched between Russia and the West regarding its roles in the Ukraine war. It is a quagmire that Beijing does not want.”

“[The] Chinese and Russian leaders will certainly talk about how to end the war as a cease of conflict is conducive to the interests of both,” the analyst said.

On Monday, two major newspapers in Russia and China simultaneously published two articles by Putin and Xi that reflected their approaches towards each other.

Putin’s article in the People’s Daily said Russia appreciated China’s “well-balanced stance on the events in Ukraine” and Moscow welcomed “China’s readiness to make a meaningful contribution to the settlement of the crisis.” 

The Russian president went on to condemn Western countries for “the irresponsible and outright dangerous actions that jeopardize nuclear security.”

“Russia is open to the political and diplomatic resolution of the Ukraine crisis,” Putin wrote, “Unfortunately, the ultimatum nature of requirements placed on Russia shows that their authors are detached from these realities and lack interest in finding a solution to the situation.”

“We reject illegitimate unilateral sanctions, which must be lifted,” the article said.

China’s 12-point blue print on the Ukraine crisis, on the other hand, does not offer concrete measures to end the conflict and “it’s difficult to say what Xi might say to Putin in private,” said Ian Storey, a Singapore-based scholar who has been studying China’s and Russia’s defense diplomacy in Southeast Asia.

“I don’t think he will try to persuade Putin to sign some kind of ceasefire agreement with Ukraine,” Storey said.

When it comes to the Ukraine conflict, “the key question is whether or not the Putin-Xi summit will lead to decisions on the part of China to open large-scale military and military-related supplies to Russia,” said Artyom Lukin, deputy director for research at the School of Regional and International Studies at Russia’s Far Eastern Federal University. 

“For Beijing to go ahead with weapons shipments to Russia, it must be confident in the strength and resilience of the Chinese economy that will likely be hit with massive Western sanctions,” Lukin told RFA.

“Judging from the list of Russian top officials who will be present at the Putin-Xi talks, the main topics on the agenda will be bilateral economic relations,” the analyst said.

China wary of Washington’s red lines

Amongst participants, there will be ministers of finance and transport, the Governor of the Central Bank Elvira Nabiullina, and the head of the State Nuclear Energy Corporation Rosatom Alexei Likhachev, as well as prominent businessmen.

“Even though Beijing keeps denouncing Western sanctions imposed on Russia, China has been careful not to cross the red lines drawn by Washington,” Lukin told RFA.

“Despite the overall considerable growth of bilateral trade last year, some areas of the Russia-China economic relationship, especially in financial and hi-tech sectors, have suffered,” he said.

In his opinion, Xi Jinping’s visit to Moscow can provide some answers to the key question of “whether China’s cautiousness in business dealings with Russia is transient or for the long haul.”

Storey,  a senior fellow at the ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute, pointed out that “increasingly Beijing will throw Moscow an economic lifeline” as Russia is an important country for China and “China cannot let Western sanctions against Russia succeed.”

“As time goes by, Russia’s dependence on China will deepen,” Storey said.

Among the agreements to be signed during President Xi’s visit to Moscow “one major indicator to watch will be a possible signing of a binding contract to supply gas from western Siberia to China via a pipeline that will traverse Mongolia before entering China,” according to Artyom Lukin.

“Natural gas that Gazprom seeks to supply to China through the projected pipeline is from the same deposits that had, until recently, fed Europe’s energy needs.”

“If Beijing hands this mega-contract to Moscow, this may signal Xi’s determination to develop durable links with Russia,” the Russian analyst said, adding that another big item on the economic agenda could be setting up a system to “bypass SWIFT and Western currencies in bilateral trade and investment.”

‘A tighter embrace’

The state visit, first of all, will reconfirm the “strategic trust, good neighborliness and cooperation” between Russia and China, both major countries in the world.

“While there has been much talk of the West trying to drive a wedge between Russia and China, this is just wishful thinking,” according to Storey.

“As both countries increasingly feel that they are the target of a U.S.-led containment strategy they have moved into a tighter embrace,” he said.

For that reason, the U.S. will “certainly be on the agenda of the meeting” between Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin, according to professor Baohui Zhang from Lingnan University.

“The Sino-Russia strategic partnership is motivated by the U.S. primacy in international affairs,” Zhang said, “The U.S. support for Ukraine and the U.S. shift towards strategic competition against China have provided more momentum for Beijing and Moscow to tighten their diplomatic and security partnership.”

The Hong Kong-based academic also noted that Western countries are not united on this matter.

“Some major European countries, like Germany and France, tend to suggest that the West should treat China differently from Russia as China does not represent a direct security threat and treating China and Russia the same way would only motivate them to bind together as challengers to the West,” he added.

Over the past decade, Xi Jinping has made eight visits to Russia. 

Vladimir Putin, for his part, made 12 official visits to China since his first presidency in 2000. His last state visit to Beijing took place in February 2022.