Chinese President Xi Jinping backed Russia’s call for an end to NATO’s eastward expansion during a meeting with President Vladimir Putin in Beijing on Friday.
In a 5,400-word joint statement released by the Kremlin, China and Russia called on NATO to “abandon the ideological approaches of the Cold War era,” and “respect the sovereignty, security and interests of other countries … and to deal with the peaceful development of other governments objectively and fairly.”
Russia is currently engaged in a tense standoff with the Western military alliance over Ukraine. More than 100,000 Russian troops have amassed near the border, even as Moscow claims there are no plans for an invasion or further annexation of Ukrainian territory.
Moscow has demanded NATO guarantee that Ukraine will never be admitted into the Cold War-era alliance. Western leaders have refused this request.
Mr. Putin and Mr. Xi had lunch together in Beijing before the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics, at which Mr. Putin was perhaps the highest-profile foreign guest. Multiple countries, including Canada, the United States and Britain, have staged a diplomatic boycott of the Games over China’s human-rights records, while other dignitaries are not in attendance because of COVID-19 concerns.
During their meeting Friday afternoon at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in central Beijing, Mr. Putin and Mr. Xi discussed a “wide range of bilateral and international issues,” according to Chinese state media.
A video of their first meeting showed them greeting each other warmly. Neither man wore masks, but they did not shake hands, presumably as a COVID-19 precaution.
Andrew Small, senior transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund, said Mr. Putin’s visit would be “significant in a normal context.” But given Russia’s attempts to revisit the wider security order in Europe, it’s an even more important show of support to Mr. Putin, Mr. Small said. “Both sides see advantage in showing a united front at the moment – that while there may not be an alliance, they have each other’s back.”
Mr. Xi has not left China since the beginning of the pandemic, and no foreign leaders have come to the country during that time. Even figures close to Beijing, such as former German chancellor Angela Merkel, who sought one-on-one meetings with Mr. Xi were rebuffed, Mr. Small said.
Joseph Webster, an independent analyst who writes the China-Russia Report newsletter, said that “both Xi and Putin are running significant risks to meet in person at the Olympics.”
“Putin may have delayed escalating in Ukraine in order to avoid spoiling the Olympics opening ceremony and the bilateral meeting,” he said. “By meeting with Putin and his entourage, Xi is injecting tension into China’s relationship with Europe and the broadly defined West, not to mention risking an Omicron outbreak.”
In the joint statement Friday, Russia said it “reaffirms its support for the One China principle, confirms that Taiwan is an inalienable part of China and opposes any forms of independence of Taiwan,” a key priority for Beijing.
The two countries also expressed concern about “the advancement of U.S. plans to develop global missile defence and deploy its elements in various regions of the world, combined with capacity-building of high-precision non-nuclear weapons for disarming strikes and other strategic objectives.”
Russia and China have not always had the easiest of friendships, but after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, and the resulting collapse in relations with the West, Moscow grew closer to Beijing than ever before. With European countries trying to end their reliance on Russian gas (something which has come up again in the current Ukraine crisis), Moscow struck a deal worth billions to build a new pipeline to China.
At their meeting Friday, Mr. Putin told Mr. Xi that Russia has prepared a new deal to supply China with 10 billion cubic metres of natural gas from its Far East, one of just 15 agreements the Kremlin said would be on the table.
Beijing was mildly critical of the Crimea annexation – which was carried out after the region’s residents voted in a referendum to join Russia, not the type of behaviour China wants to encourage in its own border regions – but Mr. Xi is “making very clear where his sympathies lie” this week, Mr. Small said.
While Mr. Putin’s presence at the Olympics may delay a move against Ukraine, if one is indeed planned, the Russian leader could also be looking to shore up his economy by ensuring China offers support for the hit it is likely to take in the event of an invasion.
Washington and its allies have threatened to impose crippling sanctions on Russia in such an event, and on Thursday, U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price warned Chinese firms against undermining any of those measures.
“We have an array of tools that we can deploy if we see foreign companies, including those in China, doing their best to backfill U.S. export control actions, to evade them, to get around them,” Mr. Price said.
White House national security official Peter Harrell said that “if Russia thinks that it will be in a position … to mitigate some of those consequences, by a closer relationship with [China], that is not the case. It will actually make the Russian economy, in many ways, more brittle.”
Mr. Price said U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi had an extended discussion on potential implications of Russian action against Ukraine in a phone call last week.
Ahead of Mr. Putin’s visit, Chinese state news agency Xinhua published an article signed by the Russian leader in which he described China and Russia as “bound by centuries-old traditions of friendship and trust.”
He said the two countries’ strategic partnership has entered a “new era,” adding he and Mr. Xi “will thoroughly discuss key issues on the bilateral, regional, and global agendas.”
“Foreign policy co-ordination between Russia and China is based on close and coinciding approaches to solving global and regional issues,” Mr. Putin said. “Our countries play an important stabilizing role in today’s challenging international environment, promoting greater democracy in the system of international relations to make it more equitable and inclusive.”
The Russian leader criticized the “attempts by a number of countries to politicize sports” for their own “selfish interests.”
With a report from Reuters
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