A meeting between Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin via videoconference is underway, with analysts watching for any signs of the Chinese leader’s waning support for his Russian counterpart as the war in Ukraine drags on and China faces an outbreak of unprecedented Covid.
In an opening speech broadcast by Russian television, Putin invited Xi to visit Moscow next spring. He added that the two countries would strengthen cooperation between their armed forces and highlighted the growth in trade despite “adverse market conditions”.
Bilateral relations are “the best in history and stand all tests”, he said. “We share the same views on the causes, course and logic of the ongoing transformation of the global geopolitical landscape.”
Xi also delivered a keynote speech, saying that “against the difficult international situation, China is ready to increase political cooperation with Russia” and be “global partners,” according to the translation of the statement. broadcast by Russian state media.
Moscow and Beijing have grown closer in recent years, with Xi and Putin declaring the two countries had a “limitless” partnership weeks before Russia invaded Ukraine in February.
China has since refused to condemn the aggression, repeatedly blaming NATO and the United States for the conflict – and remains one of Russia’s main remaining supporters as it further isolates itself. more on the world stage.
But more than 10 months into the bitter war, the world looks a lot different – and the dynamic between the two partners has changed accordingly, experts say.
Instead of an anticipated quick victory, Putin’s invasion failed with numerous battlefield setbacks, including a lack of basic equipment. Morale in parts of Russia is low, with many civilians facing economic hardship during the harsh winter.
Russia on Thursday launched what Ukrainian officials described as one of the largest missile barrages since the war began in February, with explosions rocking villages and towns across Ukraine, damaging infrastructure civilians and killing at least three people.
Ukrainian officials have been warning for days that Russia is preparing to launch an all-out assault on the power grid to close out 2022, plunging the country into darkness as Ukrainians try to ring in the New Year and celebrate the Christmas holidays, which for the country’s Orthodox Christians falls on January 7.
“China is eager for (the war) to end,” said Yun Sun, director of the China program at the Washington-based think tank Stimson Center.
“Xi will try to emphasize the importance of peace for Putin,” she added. “As Russia grows impatient with the lack of progress on the battlefield, the time ripens for peace talks in China’s eyes.”
China, too, is increasingly isolated in its stance toward Russia, said Alfred Wu, associate professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore.
Wu cited Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi as an example of hardening attitudes towards Russia’s war.
Although India did not condemn Moscow’s invasion outright, Modi told Putin in September that now was not the time for war and urged him to move towards peace.
The shift means China is now more alone in its dealings with Russia, another reason Xi may be eager to see a quick resolution, Wu said.
Xi had already shown signs of impatience when he last met Putin in September at a regional summit in Uzbekistan. At the time, Putin acknowledged that Beijing had “questions and concerns” about the invasion, in what appeared to be a veiled admission of their differing views.
But, experts say, China’s domestic situation has also changed dramatically in the months since, which may require a different approach from Putin this time around.
The country is currently battling its worst Covid outbreak after finally abandoning its strict zero-Covid policy, with restrictions eased and borders partially reopened. The U-turn came after an unprecedented wave of protests across the country against zero-Covid – in some cases expanding to include broader grievances against Xi and the ruling Communist Party.
At the center of this crisis is Xi – who entered a breakaway third term in October with a tight grip on power and a narrow circle of loyalists.
“Now that the domestic issues are sorted out, Xi is in a better position to work on Russia,” Sun of the Stimson Center said, referring to his consolidation of power in October.
She added that despite the unpopularity of the war, China and Russia “are aligned because of geopolitics.” Both countries face tensions with the West, and the two leaders have often touted a shared vision of a new world order.
“Both leaders will emphasize their partnership, cooperation and close ties. They will want to send the message that all of these transcend the war in Ukraine,” Sun said. “(The war) was a nuisance for China last year and affected China’s interest in Europe. But the damage is not great enough for China to abandon Russia.
Wu also acknowledged that the relationship was “fundamental for both countries”, pointing to China’s ability to profit from the war in Ukraine due to its access to Russian oil.
However, he added, China’s protests, the Covid outbreak and the resulting economic toll have put Xi in a more vulnerable position, which could mean less material and outspoken support for Russia. .
“The political tools that Xi Jinping can use to support Russia are quite limited now, they are quite limited,” Wu said. “Politically, domestic support for Xi has dropped significantly. His third term doesn’t really begin with a rosy image.