Putin proves an unpredictable partner for Xi as nations cement ties

In Russia from Monday to Wednesday, Chinese leader Xi Jinping will strengthen ties with an increasingly dependent on Beijing but also unpredictable partner.

Russia is becoming increasingly dependent on China to buy its natural gas and keep its economy afloat in the face of Western sanctions. But Mr. Xi’s influence over Russian President Vladimir Putin is not as clear as it seems. And Moscow has repeatedly disadvantaged China with surprise moves designed to advance its own goals.

In November, Russia’s new envoy to China told reporters that Mr. Xi planned to visit Moscow, well before Beijing was ready for an announcement, according to people familiar with Beijing’s decision-making process. “The Chinese side hadn’t even made a decision yet,” one of the people said.

Two months earlier, to Beijing’s chagrin, the people said, the Kremlin had leaked video footage of the head of the Chinese legislature reassuring his Russian counterpart of Beijing’s “understanding and full support” on the Ukraine issue and what he called “Russia’s resolute response”.

Had Beijing known the meeting would be made public, the people said, its choice of words would have been more careful to avoid China being seen as an accomplice of Russia.

Both episodes reflected Moscow’s desire to show its firm alignment with Beijing at a time of increased Western pressure – and when Beijing appeared to be trying to re-establish its ties with the West.

Yet Mr. Xi is continuing his state visit to Russia – his 40th face-to-face meeting with Mr. Putin – underscoring the continued importance of his understanding with Russia even as the trip undermines other foreign policy goals, including preventing China’s relationship with the United States from derailing.

“Xi doubles down on Russia,” said Yun Sun, director of the China program at the Stimson Center, a Washington think tank.

On Saturday, just before Mr. Xi is set to begin the state visit to Russia, Mr. Putin made his first trip to the occupied Ukrainian port city of Mariupol since the Russian invasion, in another apparent attempt to signal that he had the support of Beijing.

Beijing and Washington have seen their relationship spiral into hostility since a suspected Chinese spy balloon was spotted over the heart of the United States in late January, forcing Secretary of State Antony Blinken to cancel his trip to China, a trip that was to create an opportunity for both powers to mend fences.

Saudi, Chinese and Iranian officials met in Beijing this month as China sought to restore its diplomatic credentials.


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President Biden has said he will speak to Mr Xi about the balloon incident, but so far Beijing has given little indication of his willingness to engage. Asked about the possibility of a call between the two leaders, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said last week that “communication should not be done for the sake of communication.”

Chinese officials have also privately acknowledged that Mr. Xi’s upcoming visit to Russia could complicate efforts by both sides to try to reschedule Mr. Blinken’s trip to Beijing.

On the other hand, rather than pushing Mr. Putin to withdraw from Ukraine, Mr. Xi will instead use his meeting to further deepen China’s strategic partnership with Russia.

Xi’s state visit to Russia “will inject new impetus into the development of bilateral relations,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang said Friday.

China has recently tried to portray itself as a heavyweight in international relations, in what Xi called “great power diplomacy”. A deal Beijing recently brokered for Iran and Saudi Arabia to normalize relations has provided hard evidence that it is willing to use its influence to help resolve foreign disputes.

President Vladimir Putin wants to show Russia’s alignment with China at a time of increased Western pressure.



Beijing has also signaled its ambition to help broker a ceasefire in the Ukraine crisis, a much tougher challenge for Beijing – and further complicated by Mr Xi’s upcoming trip to Moscow and his determination to keep Mr. Putin as a strategic partner. .

On Friday, the White House expressed concern about China’s deepening ties with Russia, which National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said makes a potential call from Beijing for a ceasefire. fire in the war in Ukraine a unilateral proposal to Russia. advantage.

To bolster China’s image as a neutral party interested in peace, Xi is expected to hold talks with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky for the first time since the start of the Russian invasion, likely after his trip to Moscow. , reported the Wall Street Journal.

Since Russia attacked Ukraine more than a year ago, China’s partnership with Russia – and its refusal to condemn the Russian invasion – has alienated the world’s second-largest economy from much of the rest. of the world.

While Ukrainian forces have continued to put up strong resistance to Russian aggression, Russia appears to be an increasingly weak partner in its relations with China. But any move by Beijing to significantly distance itself from Moscow or seek to address Ukraine’s concerns could provoke a painful reaction. China cannot allow relations with a country with which it shares a long border to go wrong.


Can Xi Jinping pull off a balancing act with Vladimir Putin? Join the conversation below.

Some Chinese foreign policy experts draw similarities between China’s reluctance to pressure Russia and its reluctance to push North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program.

Both countries are neighbors of China and much weaker than China economically. But both are important to Mr. Xi’s efforts to fend off perceived security threats from the US-led West. And Beijing sees both regimes as unpredictable.

Lately, after securing an unprecedented third term in power, Xi is stepping up efforts to break Beijing’s diplomatic isolation, attempting to stabilize relations with Washington’s allies in Brussels while advancing China’s economic and trade cooperation. China with Russia.

Sign of a refocus on diplomacy: Beijing has increased its budget for diplomatic travel and other related expenses by 12% this year.

“China is stalling and trying to strike a better balance between the twin goals of achieving stability in relations with Europe and ensuring that Russia does not lose the war and remains aligned with China,” he said. said Evan Medeiros, a former top national security official. Obama administration official and now a professor at Georgetown University.

Write to Lingling Wei at Lingling.Wei@wsj.com

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