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When Putin and Xi meet, it is Beijing coming out on top

The two leaders met in Uzbekistan as Russia is losing ground in Ukraine, deepening its dependence on China.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose dependence on China has deepened amid international isolation over his faltering war in Ukraine, has acknowledged that Beijing has “questions and concerns” about the conflict.

The State Department called the admission “striking.”

Putin made the remarks on Thursday during a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Uzbekistan on the sidelines of a regional summit showcasing the two leaders’ ambition to provide a counterpoint to America’s global dominance.

The meeting came at a delicate time for both leaders, with Putin suffering major setbacks in a Ukrainian counteroffensive and Xi facing an economic slowdown at home as his “zero-Covid” policies keep tens of millions of people in lockdowns and alienate international investors.

Xi’s trip this week to Central Asia, which began with a state visit to Kazakhstan, marked the first time he had left China since the start of the pandemic more than 2 1/2 years ago.

“It’s certainly significant that this is the first foreign trip that Xi Jinping has taken for such a long time,” said Joseph Torigian, an assistant professor at American University who studies Russia-China relations, “and it’s happening at a very interesting moment.”

Xi has tried to strike a balance in his dealings with Putin, refraining from condemning the Russian invasion while being careful to avoid violating international sanctions, and he is not expected to change his approach despite Ukraine’s recent advances. 

But “the very meeting itself at such a critical moment for the Russians is a pretty dramatic statement of support,” Torigian said.

In comments at the start of the meeting, Putin praised Xi for his “balanced position” on Ukraine but said he understood that Beijing had “questions and concerns” about the conflict, Reuters reported.

State Department spokesperson Ned Price described the latter comment as “striking.”

“It’s not surprising that the P.R.C. apparently has such concerns,” Price said, using the abbreviation for China’s formal name, the People’s Republic of China. “It is somewhat curious that President Putin would be the one to admit it so openly.”

Putin also expressed strong support for China over Taiwan, the self-ruling democracy that Beijing claims as its own territory. International tensions over the issue were raised last month when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited the island, prompting China to respond with a series of unprecedented live-fire drills.

“We intend to firmly adhere to the principle of ‘One China,’” Putin said. “We condemn provocations by the United States and their satellites in the Taiwan Strait.”

An official Chinese readout of the meeting expressed appreciation for Russia’s position on Taiwan but did not mention Ukraine. It said Xi had told Putin that China was ready to work with Russia “to extend strong mutual support on issues concerning each other’s core interests.”

China views Russia as an important partner, but it also doesn’t want to jeopardize access to Western markets and technology by appearing to enable Putin’s war in Ukraine, said Alexander Gabuev, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“They’re very comfortably sitting on this fence, in my view,” he said.

For Putin, the meeting with Xi — the leader of the world’s second-largest economy — is a chance to show that Russia is not as isolated as the West would suggest, said Gabuev, noting that Putin is also expected to meet this week with Narendra Modi, the prime minister of democratic India.

China and Russia share a similar vision for a multipolar world less dominated by the United States, one that emphasizes economic relationships and noninterference in other countries’ politics, including human rights violations.

That philosophy was on display during Xi’s state visit to Kazakhstan, where he wrote in an article published this week that the two countries should “reject unilateralism and bloc confrontation, and jointly push for an international order that is more just and more equitable.”

Xi, who stayed home far longer than any other leader of a Group of 20 nation, last having traveled overseas in January 2020, when he went to Myanmar days before the Chinese city of Wuhan went into a lockdown amid a growing coronavirus outbreak. His first trip outside mainland China was to the Chinese territory of Hong Kong for the July 1 anniversary of its handover from Britain.

After his visit to Kazakhstan on Wednesday, Xi continued to neighboring Uzbekistan for a meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a security alliance led by China and Russia.

The eight-member grouping, which also includes India, Pakistan and four Central Asian nations, represents more than 40 percent of the global population and about a quarter of the world’s gross domestic product.

Xi and Putin’s meeting on the sidelines of the summit was their first since February, when the two leaders declared a “no limits” partnership at a meeting in Beijing, weeks before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The two men have met dozens of times since Xi became president in 2013.

China has been a lifeline for Russia amid mounting international sanctions, particularly as a destination for its energy exports; in recent months, Russia has been China’s top oil supplier. Overall trade between the two countries was up about a third in the first eight months of the year, according to Reuters.

Putin’s recent losses have only increased Xi’s leverage in the relationship, Gabuev said, with the potential for long-term strategic gains. 

Russia has been especially eager to tout China’s support since the Ukrainian counteroffensive. A statement from Moscow following a visit last week by Li Zhanshu, China’s No. 3 official, said he told Russian lawmakers that “China understands and supports Russia on issues that represent its vital interests, in particular on the situation in Ukraine.” 

Chinese state media reports did not mention any comments by Li on the conflict.

Xi’s trip is also notable because it comes ahead of a twice-a-decade meeting of China’s ruling Communist Party at which he is widely expected to secure an unprecedented third term in office. The meeting is typically preceded by intense political jockeying; Xi stopped traveling internationally three months before the last party congress in 2017.

“The fact that he is going overseas now suggests that he is very confident about the situation at home,” Torigian said.

Though the Russia-China partnership is not based on shared values in the same way as alliances like the U.S.-led NATO, experts say it is based on shared interests and both sides benefit, even if Russia benefits somewhat less.

In Russia’s view, “it’s better to be a junior partner of China than a junior partner of the West,” Gabuev said.