Chinese President Xi Jinping is set to travel to Moscow next week to hold talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin – his first visit to Russia since Kremlin troops invaded Ukraine.
The March 20 to 22 visit, also Xi’s first foreign trip since winning a third term as president, is seen by the West as a show of Beijing’s support for Moscow in its ailing war against Kyiv.
Much speculation has been made as to the nature of the trip, with western officials warning that it may signal China is considering giving Russia military assistance for the fight.
But China, which is trying to present itself as a neutral arbiter of the conflict, has denied such claims, even as it has refused to condemn the invasion.
Whatever the outcome, the meeting is sure to intensify ties between the two leaders who have already met 39 times prior – including over a year ago in Beijing at the Feb. 4, 2022, opening of the Olympics Games. At that encounter, held shortly before Russia invaded Ukraine, the two declared a “no limits” partnership.
Here are the things Putin and Xi seek to gain from their joint meeting and one curveball ahead of it:
Putin wants the weapons
After launching an attack on Ukraine a year ago, Putin found himself with a limited pool of friends, a size that matters when it comes to Moscow’s ability to import and resupply critical arms and munitions in the fight.
China so far has held off on providing such lethal aid, instead choosing to support Russia through boosted trade and extra joint wargames.
But Western officials have recently started to warn that Beijing could soon move to give Moscow military assistance – with next week’s meeting a possible ideal venue for the two to make such an announcement.
Also setting off alarms were comments from Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang, who recently accused the U.S. of hypocrisy in warning China against supplying weapons to Russia, pointing to the Biden administration supplying weapons to Taiwan.
“It’s something that we will watch for,” national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters Monday, referring to any glimmers of a weapons agreement between the two nations. “Obviously, Russia has its own interests in trying to pull other countries into this conflict if it can, but our position is the same whether or not they meet.”
The prospect is worrisome to U.S. officials as Chinese weapons, while not seen as able to hand a decisive win to Putin, could draw out the conflict, draining American weapons, aid resources and public goodwill toward helping Ukraine in the fight.
Xi wants to grow his reputation as a peacemaker
Fresh off a Chinese-brokered deal for Saudi Arabia and Iran to resume diplomatic relations, announced earlier this week, Xi now turns his eye to the Ukraine-Russia war.
Without mentioning the embattled country, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said Xi’s visit is partially to promote “peace,” with conversations to touch on major regional and international issues.
Xi’s government has already released a so called “peace plan” for Ukraine, a 12-point agenda for “a political resolution of the Ukraine crisis,” that has largely gone ignored in the west.
And in a phone call on Thursday, senior Chinese diplomat Qin Gang told his Ukrainian counterpart that Beijing hopes “all parties will remain calm, rational and restrained, and resume peace talks as soon as possible,” according to a statement from the Chinese foreign ministry.
But the United States and NATO remain wary of China’s push to mediate as Beijing has yet to condemn Russia for the war, or even to outwardly call the conflict such, instead deferring to Russia’s insistence it is a “special military operation.”
Further drawing western skepticism, China has repeatedly sided with Russia and blocked international action against Moscow for the war.
Both want a new world order
One likely outcome of the Xi-Putin meeting is a public recommitment of the two’s partnership, seen as vital for them to counter what they see as the West’s unfair meddling in their affairs.
Xi’s visit to Russia – and the Chinese support that comes with it – means to act as a challenge to the U.S. and its allies, who have sought to squeeze Moscow’s economy with crippling sanctions.
The relationship is symbiotic, as Russia, in turn, offers China more weight on the international stage and backing in its own aggressive maneuvers, particularly in the South China Sea.
“As the world enters a new period of turbulence and change, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council and an important power, the significance and influence of China-Russia relations go far beyond the bilateral scope,” China’s foreign ministry said in the announcement of the Xi visit.
Ryan Hass, a senior fellow with Washington D.C.-based think tank Brookings, said securing Russia as China’s partner is “fundamental” to Xi’s vision of national rejuvenation.
“China views the United States as the principal obstacle to its rise,” Hass writes.
“Xi likely also sees the benefit of Russia distracting America’s strategic focus away from China. Neither Beijing nor Moscow can deal with the United States and its partners on its own; they both would rather stand together to deal with external pressure than face it alone,” he added.
Shaking things up – Xi set to meet with international fugitive
The Xi-Putin meeting was announced hours ahead of the International Criminal Court (ICC) issuing an arrest warrant for the Russian president over allegations of war crimes related to unlawful deportation of children from Ukraine to Russia.
The arrest warrant – one of the first charges against Putin for war crimes in Ukraine – means Xi is now meeting with an international fugitive come Monday.
Typically, such a warrant brings with it an important element of public shaming – a signal to other countries to carefully consider their dealings with an individual under investigation, according to international law experts.
“From now on, the Russian president has the official status of a suspect in committing an international crime – illegal deportation and displacement of Ukrainian children,” Ukraine’s Prosecutor General Andriy Kostin wrote on Facebook.
“This means that outside Russia, Putin should be arrested and brought to court. And world leaders will think three times before shaking his hand or sitting with him at the negotiating table. The world has received a signal that the Russian regime is criminal and its leadership and allies will be brought to justice.”
There’s little chance Putin will be brought into custody of an international court of law, and it’s also unlikely the warrant will greatly impact the meeting or Beijing’s position toward Moscow. But the legal move could put pressure on the two countries on the world stage.