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Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin during a meeting on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit, in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, on Sept. 15.SPUTNIK/Reuters

Russian President Vladimir Putin thanked Chinese leader Xi Jinping for his country’s “balanced position” on Ukraine as the two men met in person Thursday for the first time since the launch of the war.

In televised remarks delivered in the Uzbek city of Samarkand, Mr. Putin acknowledged that Beijing has “questions and concerns” regarding the conflict and promised to explain Moscow’s position during a closed-door session with Mr. Xi.

Mr. Xi said the two countries were facing a changing world. “China is willing to make efforts with Russia to assume the role of great powers and play a guiding role to inject stability and positive energy into a chaotic world,” he said.

China has emerged as Russia’s most important ally since the invasion of Ukraine, which was launched just weeks after Mr. Xi and Mr. Putin vowed that their countries’ friendship had “no limits.” The declaration was made subsequent to a meeting in Beijing ahead of the Winter Olympics. Many – including Western intelligence agencies – suspect Mr. Xi was told by Mr. Putin of his war plans and accuse China of doing little to prevent the invasion.

In the months since, Beijing has repeatedly called for peace in Ukraine but has refrained from criticizing Russia, all the while denouncing Western sanctions against Moscow. Mr. Xi has had several phone conversations with Mr. Putin, but none with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

This week marks the first time that the Chinese leader has crossed his country’s borders since early 2020. Mr. Xi travelled to Kazakhstan on Wednesday before flying to Samarkand for a summit of the Shanghai Co-operation Organization, a regional security group dominated by Beijing.

The SCO is part of a continuing attempt by Beijing to build institutions to replace or counter international structures that China regards as dominated by the West. In his remarks Thursday, Mr. Putin called for the SCO to be strengthened to guard against “attempts to create a unipolar world,” which he said “have recently acquired an absolutely ugly form and are completely unacceptable.”

On Friday, Li Zhanshu, a senior Chinese official, gave Beijing’s most outright endorsement of Moscow yet, telling Russian lawmakers that China “understands and supports Russia on issues that represent its vital interests, in particular on the situation in Ukraine,” according to a news release published by the Russian Duma.

“We fully understand the necessity of all the measures taken by Russia aimed at protecting its key interests, we are providing our assistance,” Mr. Li said, according to the Russian readout.

Trade between China and Russia increased 31 per cent year over year in the first six months of 2022. In September, the two countries agreed to switch gas payments to the Chinese yuan and Russian ruble, enabling Moscow to rely less on the U.S. dollar. Russian companies have also increasingly switched to trading in the yuan.

In a piece published by the state-run China Daily on Thursday, analyst Xu Wenhong wrote that “for China and Russia, maintaining friendly relations is an objective and realistic need.”

“While Russia provides China with stable, inexpensive and clean energy, China has become Russia’s largest trading partner, with many countries even beyond the region benefiting from the friendly Sino-Russian ties,” he wrote, adding that the two countries “have become the defenders and guardians of peace and development in the region and beyond.”

Other participants in the SCO summit may share China’s skepticism about the West but are not so keen to follow Beijing’s embrace of Moscow, said Evan Feigenbaum, a China expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Writing this week, Mr. Feigenbaum pointed out that many of Russia’s Central Asian neighbours, normally staunch allies, have expressed discomfort with the invasion of Ukraine and Moscow’s imperialist language about former Soviet states. Kazakhstan in particular has broken with the Kremlin line, refusing to recognize the breakaway republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, and is holding talks with Mr. Zelensky.

Mr. Feigenbaum predicted that China will “provide diplomatic support for Russia and broad commitments to a Beijing-Moscow entente whose principal rationale and focus is to counterbalance Washington.” But, he added, “China will continue de facto compliance with Western sanctions to avoid painting a target on its own back, and it will deploy mealy-mouthed language about ‘peace’ and ‘stability’ aimed at placating the Central Asian nations and partners in the Global South that are uneasy about Moscow’s war in Ukraine.”

Such an approach may mesh well with the framework of the SCO. In an article published by Uzbek media this week, Mr. Xi wrote that “the SCO has set a fine example of a new type of international relations featuring mutual respect, fairness, justice and win-win co-operation, and proved itself an important and constructive force in the Eurasian region and in international affairs.”

Raffaello Pantucci, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said Beijing’s intention for the SCO has long been “to turn this into an all-encompassing organization that would build China’s relations with the wider region and create in some ways a European Union or ASEAN-type structure for Central Asia.”

While moving beyond co-operation on counterterrorism issues has proved difficult for the SCO, this year’s summit is vastly expanded, with 15 heads of state in attendance, including Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Pakistan’s Shehbaz Sharif and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi.

According to Chinese state media, the “Samarkand Declaration” will be issued after the summit “to expound the SCO’s position on a series of international issues.”

In an editorial Thursday, the Chinese state-run Global Times attacked those who criticized the SCO or suggested it was aimed at establishing an “anti-Western front.”

“If there is a Chinese proverb to comment on this, it is ‘Ask not the sparrow how the eagle soars,’” the paper said. “They can only understand and speculate about the SCO’s concepts with their own narrow cognition. The minds of American and Western elites are full of domineering and paranoid confrontational thinking.”

With reports from Alexandra Li and Reuters

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