Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping pledged to cooperate more closely to counter U.S. influence during a meeting on Friday ahead of the opening ceremony of the 2022 Beijing Olympics.
The Putin-Xi meeting – the 38th of its kind, according to Beijing – was the latest evidence that the two countries have grown closer as their relations with the United States have become more strained.
The meeting comes at a pivotal time, as Russia is massing more than 100,000 troops along the border with Ukraine and demanding concessions from NATO, the Western military alliance, raising fears of a conflict.
It is unclear how far China is willing to go to support Russia on the Ukraine issue, especially if the situation escalates into violence during the Beijing Olympics.
A joint statement following the Putin-Xi meeting did not explicitly mention Ukraine. However, the document says both countries oppose further NATO expansion and call on the military alliance to abandon its “cold war” approach.
The United States has accused Russia of seeking a pretext to invade Ukraine, as part of its effort to expand Moscow’s sphere of influence in Eastern Europe.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki downplayed the significance of the meeting.
“What we control over are our own relationships and the protection of our own values, and we also look for ways to work with countries even when we disagree,” she told reporters. during a Friday briefing.
In the long and sweeping statement, Russia also reaffirmed its support for China’s positions on Taiwan, saying the island is “an integral part of China” and that it opposes Taiwan independence “under any form.”
Chinese officials recently warned Washington that its support for Taiwan, a self-governing island claimed by Beijing, could lead to war between the United States and China.
In their statement, Putin and Xi condemned “attempts by outside forces to undermine security and stability in their common adjacent regions.” While the statement did not name the exact regions in question, it said both sides are committed to “increasing cooperation” in those areas.
Putin and Xi have also taken aim at the US approach to Asia, which China sees as an attempt to counter its rise. Both men said they “remain very vigilant about the negative impact on peace and stability” of the US Indo-Pacific strategy. They also said they were “seriously concerned” about the recent creation of a trilateral alliance between the United States, Britain and Australia.
Getting closer for years
Russia and China have long collaborated to block US positions on the United Nations Security Council, where all three are permanent members with veto power.
More recently, China and Russia have found common ground on Ukraine. A recent statement by China’s Foreign Ministry referred to Russia’s “legitimate security concerns” and called for an end to the “Cold War mentality”, a clear reference to what it sees as US foreign policy.
“The Chinese have gradually moved closer to the Russian positions,” said Evan Feigenbaum, vice president of studies at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
This is a major change for China. During Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia and its 2014 invasion of Crimea, China “wasn’t leaning that far toward its partnership with Russia,” Feigenbaum said, speaking at the an online forum.
“The China-Russia partnership is very different for an American, not just a defense planner but also a strategic thinker, than he would have been six or seven years ago,” he said.
Analysts say Russian-Chinese cooperation could make it harder for the United States to punish Moscow with sanctions or other measures in the event of a Russian invasion of Ukraine. Ahead of the trip, Russian officials said the two governments were working to create an economic relationship protected from sanctions imposed by other countries.
An increase in U.S.-Russian hostilities could also distract from U.S. President Joe Biden, who has identified China as his top foreign policy priority.
However, China may not welcome major foreign policy distractions.
Friday, Beijing organizes the opening ceremony of what will be more than two weeks of Olympic events. Perhaps more importantly, Xi is in the midst of a crucial season of domestic political maneuvering meant to shape what should be his indefinite rule over China.
“Beijing wants stability and predictability. They won’t appreciate foreign turmoil,” Ryan Hass, China scholar at the US-based Brookings Institution, said in a Twitter thread.
China has called for a drop in tensions over Ukraine and proposed the implementation of the Minsk Agreement, a 2014-2015 agreement aimed at restoring peace after an outbreak of violence along the Russian-Russian border. Ukrainian.
“China is in a diplomatic stalemate,” Hass said. “He would face unwelcome difficulties and turbulence as a result of a conflict in Ukraine, but at the same time he wants to preserve strong relations with Russia and he doesn’t want to do the United States any favors.”
Xi and Putin, two strong men who preside over authoritarian governments, have a long history.
Putin was the first international leader to respond for the Beijing Olympics, after the United States announced a diplomatic boycott of the games over China’s abuses of Uyghur Muslims.
Putin hailed the “truly unprecedented character” of Sino-Russian relations, which he said is an example of a “dignified relationship that helps each of us grow.”
At Friday’s meeting, Putin announced a new deal to supply 10 billion cubic meters a year of gas to China from Russia’s Far East. Russian officials said the pair could sign more than 15 deals during the visit.
In 2021, the two sides achieved record bilateral trade of $146 billion. Putin told Xi on Friday he was confident bilateral trade could soon reach $200 billion.
Xi – who is holding his first face-to-face meeting with a world leader in more than a year – told Putin the meeting would inject more vitality into the relationship, according to Chinese state media.