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Putin arrives in China to strengthen ties with Xi Jinping amid Israel-Hamas conflict

The Russian leader, who has barely traveled abroad since the invasion of Ukraine, is attending a forum on the Belt and Road initiative and will meet with the Chinese president on Wednesday

Russian President Vladimir Putin (r) arrives in Beijing, China, 17 October 2023.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (r) arrives in Beijing, China, 17 October 2023.XINHUA / PENG ZIYANG (EFE)

The Russia-China axis is strengthening ties at a time of multiple global conflicts. Russian President Vladimir Putin landed in Beijing on Tuesday and will meet with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, on Wednesday. The meeting — which was scheduled months ago — is in honor of the 10th anniversary of China’s New Silk Road or Belt and Road initiative, an infrastructure project aimed at connecting China to the world. It comes at a critical moment, with the outbreak of a new war between Israel and Hamas that threatens to open a new gap in the geopolitical scene and comes on top of Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Since Putin decreed the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the Russian leader is rarely seen traveling abroad. In March, the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant against Putin for alleged war crimes for his involvement in the “illegal deportation of Ukrainian children,” and there are only a few places he can visit without running the risk of being arrested. His first trip outside of Russia since the arrest warrant was to Kyrgyzstan, a nation that — like China — does not recognize the ICC.

The trip will strengthen ties between two leaders who call themselves “dear friends.” Putin and Xi have brought relations between their countries to their closest point ever despite the war in Ukraine, and in part, because of it. The two leaders have met more than 40 times. A few weeks before the Russian invasion of Ukraine they announced a “friendship without limits” and in their last meeting in Moscow, in March, Xi said goodbye to his Russian counterpart by saying: “There are changes that haven’t happened in 100 years. When we are together, we drive these changes.” To which Putin replied: “I agree.”

While G-7 countries and their allies have placed sanctions on Moscow and severed economic ties with Russia, the war in Ukraine has given a new boost to trade with Beijing. In 2022, it increased by 34.3%, reaching $190 billion. The West is suspicious of China’s calculated attitude towards Russia with respect to the Ukraine war. Beijing has at no time condemned the invasion, although it has offered to be a mediator, creating a 12-point document to find a “political solution” to the “crisis.” Xi has also appointed a special envoy to investigate possible negotiations. So far, these efforts have not yielded any results.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov traveled on Monday to Beijing, where he met with his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi. The two discussed the two major points of friction on the geopolitical scene: Ukraine, and the war between Israel and Hamas. On this last point, Wang reiterated China’s condemnation of all actions that harm civilians and violate international law, and has called for the United Nations Security Council to take action.

“Major powers should play an active role” to achieve a ceasefire, establish emergency humanitarian aid channels and prevent a humanitarian disaster, Wang said, according to a readout by China’s foreign ministry, published by the Xinhua news agency. He also insisted, as Beijing has repeated in recent days, that negotiations on the two-state solution must be resumed and that China supported “the Palestinian people in restoring their legitimate national rights.”

Wang and Lavrov also “touched upon the Ukrainian crisis, including efforts to resolve it through political and diplomatic means,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement, published by the TASS news agency. According to the statement, the diplomats “highlighted the importance of boosting close coordination between Russia and China on the international stage,” in reference to forums such as the U.N. Security Council, BRICS and the G-20. The Russian Foreign Ministry noted that the parties “were glad to note that their positions coincided fully or were very closely aligned on all the issues discussed.”

Putin’s meeting with Xi will be partially overshadowed by the third Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation, in which delegations from more than 140 countries will take part. The summit is of utmost importance to China: the Belt and Road initiative is one of the most important projects the Chinese president has launched in the past decade. The event will feature heads of state from numerous countries, particularly in Africa and Latin America. The highest level leader from the European Union will be Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.

Eurasian Economic Union

One of Moscow’s objectives will be to “harmonize” China’s Belt and Road initiative with the Eurasian Economic Union, an integration project sponsored by Moscow with other former Soviet republics. In addition to Putin’s meeting with Xi on Wednesday, the Russian leader is planning several bilateral meetings with the leaders of the states participating in the forum, according to a Kremlin statement.

In an interview with China Media Group before the trip, Putin highlighted the “fundamental” importance of relations between both countries “to ensuring stability in the world,” according to the official Kremlin transcript. There is no reference to the war that broke out on October 7 in the Middle East. But it does contain an extensive reflection on the situation in Ukraine and China’s role as a mediator.

“We are thankful to our Chinese friends for trying to think about ways to end this crisis,” said Putin, who blamed Ukraine for the lack of progress towards a ceasefire and accused Western countries and NATO expansionism for provoking the conflict. He said Beijing’s proposals were “absolutely realistic and could lay the foundation for peace agreements.” “But, unfortunately,” he added, “the opposing side does not want to enter into any negotiations.”

In the interview, Putin expressed his support for a “multipolar world” against the “vestiges of colonial thinking,” which he believes is represented by the U.S.-led international order. “This is exactly what we are striving for, and this is the basis of our interaction with China on the international stage,” he said.

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