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Defying West, Russia's Putin set to meet Xi Jinping in Beijing

2 min

Russian President Vladimir Putin's Beijing visit on Thursday is likely to be light on hard deals but will mark the start of his new presidential term with a show of support from his most powerful political partner, Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping.

Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping during a meeting at the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing, China, October 18, 2023. Sputnik/Sergei Guneev/Pool via Reuters

Russian President Vladimir Putin's Beijing visit on Thursday is likely to be light on hard deals but will mark the start of his new presidential term with a show of support from his most powerful political partner, Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping.

Putin's two-day mission is expected to highlight the pair's vaunted "no limits" partnership in defiance from pressure from the United States over Russia's 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

The Chinese foreign ministry confirmed Putin's trip on Tuesday, saying Xi and Putin would exchange views on ties and "international and regional issues of common concern".

While diplomats and analysts expect Putin to push Xi for further support for Russia's war economy, from machines and chemicals to help its military industries to more discounted oil and gas purchases, Putin's trip is likely to be heavily symbolic of a shared world view centred on countering a U.S.-led order.

"China is Russia's strategic partner – this is the path chosen by the president of Russia and the leader of China – and nothing is going to change that no matter what the West tries to say or do," a Russian official said on condition of anonymity.

In an interview with China's news agency Xinhua published early on Wednesday, Putin backed China's plan for a peaceful settlement of the Ukraine crisis, saying Beijing had a full understanding of what lay behind it.

"In Beijing, they truly understand its root causes and its global geopolitical meaning," Putin said, according to a Russian language transcript published on a Kremlin website.

Putin will also discuss economic ties with China's premier Li Qiang and visit Harbin, a northeast city with historic Russian connections.

Putin's arrival follows a mission to Beijing late last month from U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in part to warn China's top diplomat Wang Yi against deepening military support for Russia.

But despite the "no limits" relationship - declared by Putin and Xi in Beijing just days before the launch of the invasion in February 2022 - China has so far avoided providing actual weapons and ammunition for Russia's war effort.

And despite initial internal U.S. talks about sanctioning Chinese banks, U.S. officials said last month they did not yet have such plans.

"I'm sure Putin would like to have China's help in getting Russia over the line in Ukraine," said Alexander Neill, a Singapore-based defence analyst.

"What more China can do without incurring action from Washington will be a very closely scrutinised element of this mission," said Neill.

SUPPORT FOR ISOLATED MOSCOW

Other analysts said just the Xi and Putin meeting itself carried weight.

"The very act of receiving Putin by Beijing - on its own - is already a form of support to Russia since China is the sole major country left that has not isolated Moscow," said James Char, a security scholar at Singapore's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

"China needs to have Russia on its side to subvert the U.S.-led world order and in its long-term struggle with the U.S. for geopolitical supremacy."

Chinese state press reports on Wednesday said Putin was on a full state visit, with some Chinese commentators stressing the importance of "head of state diplomacy" in the further strengthening relationship.

More broadly, other limits remain on the relationship, however.

Char notes a lingering mutual mistrust - the one-time ideological communist allies split at the height of the Cold War - while a senior Russian source notes scepticism among Russia's elites over becoming China's "resource appendage".

Russian oil arrivals into China, including via pipelines under long-term contracts, rose one quarter last year to a record 2.14 million barrels per day (bpd), making Moscow its top supplier for a second straight year.

Data analysed by Reuters shows China saved roughly $4.34 billion in the first nine months of 2023 buying discounted Russian oil.

China's Russian gas imports last year soared nearly 40% from 2022 at 33.7 billion cubic metres, according to Reuters calculations of customs figures and data from consultancy RBAC. Despite the rise, Kremlin-owned energy giant Gazprom is still struggling to fill the gap of lost European gas sales.

By Greg Torode and Guy Faulconbridge

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