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Putin and Xi further their embrace to defy U.S.-led pressure

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands during a bilateral meeting on Thursday in Beijing, China.
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Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands during a bilateral meeting on Thursday in Beijing, China.

MOSCOW and BEIJING — Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin doubled down on their alliance against the West this week — accusing the United States and its allies of trying to block their nations' rise during a two-day official visit to China by the Kremlin leader that ended Friday.

It was Putin's first trip abroad since beginning a fifth term in office following a pro-forma election in March.

While the visit was timed to honor the 75th anniversary of the Soviet Union's recognition of the People's Republic of China and kickstart a year of Russian-Chinese cultural exchange, there was little question of the wider geopolitical drama at play.

In the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine in 2022, Beijing has repeatedly provided Moscow diplomatic cover from Western condemnation — and an economic lifeline from unprecedented Western sanctions.

In turn, China has rebuffed U.S.-led charges it is empowering the Russian war machine, while benefiting from steep discounts on Russian energy and expanding Chinese exports into Russia.

Underlying it all is a shared view, that appears to be growing stronger by the day, that robust China-Russia ties are essential to pushing back against Western countries perceived as increasingly hostile to both nations.

Putin was accompanied by a delegation that included nearly all his senior cabinet members, military officials, and Russian industry leaders in energy, space and agriculture.

Xi — who chose Moscow for his first state visit following his own reelection last year — warmly greeted Putin at a lavish state visit-style welcoming ceremony outside Beijing's Great Hall of the People. As the two men strolled along a red carpet, the Russian leader was met by an honor guard, a 21-gun salute and a line of children jumping and cheering in choreographed unison.

A limitless partnership

By Putin's count, the two leaders have met face to face more than 40 times, signaling both men's longtime autocratic hold on power, and growing familiarity with one another. They now regularly share birthday gifts and openly refer to each other as "dear friend." This week they even hugged.

They signed a "no limits" partnership when Putin visited Xi in Beijing in February 2022 — just days before Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine. Whether Putin informed Xi of his decision or sought the Chinese leader's approval has never been clear.

Formally, China proclaims neutrality on what Xi calls "the Ukraine issue" and has sought to position itself as a mediator in the conflict.

Yet Beijing has also refused to criticize Moscow directly — instead endorsing the Kremlin's view that years of NATO expansion eastward provoked Russia's actions.

Instead, Beijing has long floated a 12-point peace plan — one that Western governments have criticized as overly vague but that Xi endorsed with Putin at his side on Thursday.

"Both sides believe that a political solution to the Ukrainian crisis is the right direction," said Xi. "China's position on this question has always been clear and consistent."

Putin said he welcomed the Chinese diplomatic initiatives but would update the Chinese leader on the war — where Russian forces have been making recent gains on the battlefield in Ukraine's Kharkiv region.

Amid the pageantry and vague appeals for peace, analysts say Beijing signaled clearly that it was refusing to downgrade the relationship with Moscow despite enhanced Western pressure.

"I didn't see any indication that China is, you know, abandoning Russia and its kind of stealth support for the war effort," says Alexander Gabuev, director of the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center and a leading China watcher.

If anything, Putin and Xi appeared to have reinforced their partnership, issuing a lengthy joint statementthat labeled the U.S. a "direct threat" and accused Washington of trying to prevent Russia and China's rise.

In comments before the cameras, Xi pledged it was China and Russia that would "uphold fairness and justice in the world."

In turn, Putin called Russian-Chinese cooperation "one of the main stabilizing factors on the international stage."

"This is all undergirded by a shared sense that the U.S. is the primary threat," says Samuel Charap, a Russia and Eurasia policy expert at the Rand Corp.

"This relationship will continue growing stronger and their mutual coordination to undermine U.S. and Western efforts globally will become more significant over time," Charap says.

The meeting came three weeks after U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Beijing, during which he told NPR he warned China against helping Russia.

Sanctions-proofing the economy

Beyond the geopolitical shadowboxing, trade was a key focus of the talks.

Putin, in particular, has looked to China as a buffer against Western sanctions levied over his actions in Ukraine.

Russia has redirected its oil and gas exports to China from a shrinking European market.

Chinese goods — most notably cars and consumer electronics — have flooded the Russian market as Western firms have packed up.

Blinken told NPR the Biden administration believes China has also become a top supplier of components Russia uses to rebuild its defense industrial base to fight Ukraine, including "machine tools, microelectronics, optics and other things that are going right into a massive production of munitions, of weaponry, of tanks, of armored vehicles."

Earlier this month, the U.S. hit a series of companies in China and Hong Kong with sanctions for providing critical components to Russia. And recent U.S. threats to issue so-called "secondary sanctions" against Chinese firms and banks seen as aiding Russia's war effort have put a further chill on business.

Putin highlighted cross-border commerce with a trip to the Chinese city of Harbin on Friday — a city with deep Russian roots going back to the 19th century and commonly known to the Chinese as "Little Moscow."

In meetings with local leaders, Putin insisted Russia was more than ready to expand cooperation in energy, agriculture, and other sectors. Whether deals had been reached remained unclear.

"As with a lot of things on the economic side of the Russia-China relationship, proclamations are one thing, and the practical realities can sometimes be another," says Rand's Charap.

Indeed, the talks brought no progress to Power of Siberia 2, a proposed new Russian gas pipeline to China that has repeatedly met resistance from Beijing.

Nor was it clear what role top Russian military officials played in the talks in Beijing as China, at least publicly, has ruled out providing weapons to Russia.

Carnegie's Gabuev likened the optics of the trip — what was visible to the outside world — to the tip of the iceberg.

"The underwater part of the iceberg, that's where the center of action is," he says. "And that's where both sides have reasons not to give us any visibility of what has been actually discussed."

Addressing students at a polytechnic university in Harbin on Friday, Putin offered his own metaphor for a Russian-Chinese alliance that has provided a degree of protection and calm amid two years of war.

"Just look how if you plant seeds in the right direction and treat them with care," Putin said, "they give a good harvest."

Charles Maynes reported from Moscow; John Ruwitch from Beijing.

Copyright 2024 NPR

John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.