Xi Jinping is testing the limits of friendship with Putin during his state visit to Russia

Days after an international arrest warrant was issued for Vladimir Putin over alleged war crimes in Ukraine, Xi Jinping’s first state visit to Moscow in four years is a sign of the Chinese leader’s commitment to the Russian president — but it’s also meant to draw red lines. last year the pair called a “no limits partnership”.

Putin, who defiantly traveled to occupied Ukrainian territory at the weekend following an International Criminal Court order, hopes Xi’s three-day visit on Monday will lend legitimacy to his invasion of Ukraine and that China could pledge material support for his military’s fight against it. .

But there are signs that Xi remains wary of the potential cost of befriending the Russian leader, particularly in Europe, as Beijing tries to boost trade after its zero-Covid policy devastated its economy last year. And despite U.S. warnings that China was considering sending weapons to Russia, there is still little evidence of significant arms flows between the two countries.

After his trip to Moscow, Xi may call Putin’s nemesis, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, according to one person familiar with the matter. It would be Xi’s first direct contact with Zelensky since the full-scale attack and a sign of the limitations China sees in its alliance with Russia at a time when Beijing wants to assert its credentials as a potential peacemaker.

“I think he will make a call,” said Yu Jie, senior China fellow at Chatham House’s Asia-Pacific program. “China simply cannot afford to become a competitor of both the United States and Europe.”

Beijing’s close ties to Moscow despite the war, which analysts have called “pro-Russian neutrality,” are hurting its standing in Europe. While China’s position last month on a possible resolution in Ukraine was met with skepticism in the West, it is a way for Beijing to reposition itself and see how the conflict develops, analysts say.

Xi’s challenge will be to strike a balance between these concerns and the benefits of closer relations with Moscow as tensions with the United States and its allies rise.

“The war in Ukraine has intensified the rivalry between the great powers and made the geopolitical differences between the US and China even more pronounced, and in response China and Russia are now really strengthening their line,” said Aleksandr Korolev, an expert on China-Russia relations. at the University of New South Wales in Sydney.

“China needs Russia for its looming confrontation with the United States, which is becoming very real,” he added, referring to the two countries’ closer military ties and Beijing’s need to prepare alternative energy supply routes in case oil from the Middle East is brought in by sea. was blocked in all confrontations with the US over Taiwan.

As Europe and the United States have imposed tough sanctions against Russia, China’s trade with its neighbor has soared over the past year, jumping 34.3 percent to a record 1.28tn, according to Chinese state-controlled media. This year, natural gas imports from Russia are expected to grow by a third.

Trade with Beijing has given Russia an economic lifeline that replaces some lost oil sales to the United States and Europe and supplies replacements for key Western-made components such as microchips, 5G equipment and industrial equipment.

“[The Chinese] understand that this is a very useful moment for them to get Russia deeper into their pocket. They have enormous influence,” said Alexander Gabuev, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Putin’s perception of the war as part of a wider conflict with the West has brought the two countries closer together. Analysts say Russia is a useful partner in China’s efforts to counter US “hegemony”. Russia’s powerful Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev gave his full support to Beijing’s view of Taiwan when he met with China’s top diplomat Wang Yi last month.

“The previous restrictions on Russia are gone,” Gabuev said. “Putin is obsessed with this war, and the partnership gives him a lifeline for the economy, critical components for his military machine, and a tool for China to push back against the United States — because the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

The deepening relationship between Beijing and Moscow prompted US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to warn last month that China’s material support for the Russian military would have “serious consequences” for relations with the United States.

China has responded that the West is fueling the conflict with its arms sales to Ukraine. “China was not the cause or catalyst of the crisis in Ukraine, and it did not supply weapons to any party to the conflict,” Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang said this month.

Although relations with Russia remain important, China’s options are limited if it wants to stabilize its relations with larger trading partners in the West.

Xi will have the opportunity to meet US President Joe Biden at two summits this year, but the chances of further rapprochement with Washington will be limited in the US elections next year. And while several European leaders, including French President Emmanuel Macron, plan to visit China this year, the success of those meetings will be colored by how far Xi supports Russia in Ukraine.

That’s why Beijing’s efforts to paint itself as a mediator are important, analysts say. This month, China achieved a rare breakthrough in conflict resolution when it struck a deal to restore diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Analysts say that resolving the conflict in Ukraine would be much more difficult. China’s statement last month did not condemn Russia’s attack and contained thinly veiled criticism of the West and NATO.

China lacks the status of a neutral mediator in the Ukraine conflict because of its significant support for Russia, said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international studies at Seoul’s Ewha University. “For China to help, it should not suggest what Kiev can do in compromise, but rather find a face-saving way to withdraw its troops.”

Contact between Xi and Zelensky would represent China’s concession to Western skepticism. But any contact was likely to be virtual rather than face-to-face, and the results were inconclusive, analysts said, as Xi tried to balance China’s desire to play peacemaker against​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​upon down on off its way down,) any ground on the United States against any ground.

Beijing saw the Ukraine conflict as a proxy battle pitting Russia against NATO and the United States, and “the Zelenskys lack decision-making power,” said one expert at a Chinese think tank in Beijing.

“All of him [Zelenskyy] can only pass the message on to Joe Biden. President Xi does not need to support Zelensky by meeting him personally. China respects Ukraine’s interests. But that’s different from putting the interests of the United States first.”

Additional reporting by Sun Yu in Beijing, Kathrin Hille in Taipei and Edward White in Seoul

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