Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, and Russian President Vladimir Putin pose for a photo prior to their talks on the sidelines of the Belt and Road Forum, in Beijing, on Oct. 18.Sergei Guneyev/The Associated Press

As the world grapples with a rapidly spiralling conflict in the Middle East, China rolled out the red carpet Wednesday for the architect of the war in Ukraine, in an apparent show of defiance to the West as Beijing advances its own vision of international governance.

Russian leader Vladimir Putin has only left his country once since the International Criminal Court sought his arrest for alleged war crimes, making him a pariah across much of the globe. But this did not stop him from being the guest of honour at a forum in Beijing this week to celebrate Chinese President Xi Jinping’s signature Belt and Road Initiative, standing alongside Mr. Xi in a group photo and being the first to speak to delegates after China’s leader.

Mr. Xi noted the men have met more than 40 times over the past decade, and developed a “strong working relationship and deep friendship.” Mr. Putin also heaped praise on Mr. Xi, in an echo of the closeness they displayed on the Russian leader’s past visit to the Chinese capital in February, 2022, just weeks before he launched his invasion of Ukraine.

Beijing and Moscow are “continuously upgrading bilateral co-operation,” Mr. Xi said, adding “China is ready to work with Russia.”

This is not just rhetoric: trade between Russia and China surged almost 30 per cent year-on-year in 2022, to US$190-billion. This year, it has already surpassed US$200-billion, Mr. Putin said Wednesday. Chinese companies have been key in ensuring Russia is able to maintain supplies of critical technologies targeted by Western sanctions, such as semiconductors, machinery and dual-use military equipment.

Speaking to reporters in Beijing, Mr. Putin said his talks with Mr. Xi lasted for three hours, and included a formal bilateral summit and a more casual, private conversation.

“We spoke in detail about the situation in the Middle East, and I informed [Mr. Xi] on the situation that is developing in Ukraine,” Mr. Putin said, adding that external factors and common threats “only strengthen” the China-Russia relationship.

Mr. Putin took advantage of this week’s forum to hold bilateral meetings with a number of other world leaders, including Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, one of his few allies left in Europe. Mr. Putin also met with the leaders of Indonesia, Pakistan and Vietnam.

As the war in Ukraine has entered a bloody stalemate, many in the West have hoped China would pressure Russia to negotiate an end to the conflict, something Beijing says it desires but has done little to actively pursue. During a meeting with Mr. Xi last week, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer urged the Chinese President to distance himself from Mr. Putin, saying China “doesn’t help itself by aligning with an outlaw nation like Russia.”

The escalating conflict between Israel and Hamas only seems to have pushed China and Russia closer, however, with both countries taking a pro-Palestinian stand: condemning Israel’s response to attacks by Hamas and avoiding criticism of the militant group.

“New crises give Beijing an opportunity to blame the West for the current state of the world and promote its alternative vision for global governance,” said Gabriel Alvarado, a non-resident senior fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Global China Hub.

The camaraderie in Beijing was a stark contrast to the reception awaiting U.S. President Joe Biden as he landed in the Middle East on Wednesday. A planned summit between Mr. Biden and Arab leaders in Jordan was called off after a deadly blast at a hospital in Gaza killed hundreds. Israel and Palestinian groups have blamed the other for the explosion.

Speaking at the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said he was “horrified by the hundreds of people killed at al-Ahli Hospital,” and called for “an immediate humanitarian ceasefire.”

In a paper this month, Philipp Ivanov, a senior fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute, wrote that “Beijing and Moscow are also aligned in their quest to disrupt the current U.S.-led international rules-based order.”

“They are major builders of a new, more fluid, multipolar global system in which Western power is diluted,” he added.

The Belt and Road Initiative is a major part of this plan. In a speech Wednesday, the Chinese leader said the project had created a “new framework for international co-operation.”

“China is endeavouring to build itself into a stronger country and rejuvenate the Chinese nation on all fronts by pursuing Chinese modernization,” Mr. Xi said.

In an apparent swipe at the West, he said, “ideological confrontation, geopolitical rivalry and bloc politics are not a choice for us,” adding BRI members stand against “unilateral sanctions, economic coercion and decoupling, and supply chain disruption.”

For his part, Mr. Putin praised the BRI as helping to create a “fairer, multipolar world.”

David Sacks, a fellow for Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, noted that only 23 heads of state travelled to Beijing this week, compared to almost 40 in 2019, “a good indicator that enthusiasm for BRI has waned.”

Beijing’s hopes to expand the BRI to Europe have been dashed by the war in Ukraine, and widespread anger over China’s support for Russia. Only one European Union leader, Hungary’s Mr. Orban, attended this week’s forum, while Italy, the bloc’s largest economy to have joined the BRI, is now actively trying to exit.

But the BRI is “not going away,” Mr. Sacks said, with China still viewing it “as an important tool for advancing Chinese power and influence amidst intensifying competition with the United States.”

In his speech Wednesday, Mr. Xi unveiled eight steps China will take to redouble its commitment to the BRI, including removing restrictions on foreign investment in the manufacturing sector, promoting green development and an initiative on artificial intelligence governance.

“What has been achieved in the past 10 years demonstrates that Belt and Road co-operation is on the right side of history,” he said. “It represents the advancing of our times, and it is the right path forward.”

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe