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18 October 2023

Russia and China still need each other

Vladimir Putin returns to Beijing at a tense geopolitical moment.

By Katie Stallard

Vladimir Putin is back in Beijing for the first time since invading Ukraine in February 2022. The last time the Russian president was in town – less than three weeks before the start of that war – he and Xi declared a “no limits” partnership and set out their vision for a new world order no longer dominated by the West.

This time around they are unlikely to repeat the “no limits” formulation, which had the unfortunate effect of making China look complicit in the Russian aggression that followed, but expect hearty declarations of friendship nonetheless.

There are few places Putin can go these days without fear of arrest on charges of war crimes (by the International Criminal Court (ICC) over allegations of the mass abduction of Ukrainian children). This is only the second time he has ventured outside Russian-controlled territory since the arrest warrant was issued in March, secure in the knowledge that China is not a party to the ICC and that, having presided over its own alleged crimes against humanity in Xinjiang, the Chinese leadership is unlikely to lecture him about human rights. Instead, Putin has been welcomed as a guest of honour at the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing, striding out alongside Xi through the golden doors of the Great Hall of the People for the opening banquet.

[See also: Guns, grain and history]

In return, the Russian president has heaped praise on Xi’s signature Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China’s global infrastructure investment project. It is the initiative’s tenth anniversary this year, and has been described by Joe Biden as a “debt and noose” agreement. Neatly sidestepping the fact that Russia has not actually signed up to the BRI and has long been wary of China’s growing influence in Central Asia, Putin assured Chinese state television that he had no concerns whatsoever. “We see that some people consider it an attempt by the People’s Republic of China to put someone under its thumb, but we see otherwise,” he insisted. “We just see a desire for cooperation.”

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It is always tempting to get caught up in the sheer bromance of these Putin-Xi meetings. But that would miss the depth of their strategic partnership. Trade between the countries set a new record last year. Russia provides China with a cheap, reliable source of energy and advanced military technology, along with a stable northern border. China represents an economic lifeline for Russia, without which it might not be able to sustain its war on Ukraine. Above all else, the two men see each other as crucial partners in their shared contest with the West.

Both leaders face significant problems at home. Putin has plunged his country into a war he cannot win and his economy into what the Russian scholar Alexandra Prokopenko has called a process of “reverse industrialisation”. After a decade in power, Xi now confronts a slowing Chinese economy, looming crisis in the housing market, and spiralling youth unemployment, not to mention a demographic time bomb.

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But as the two leaders survey the fractious world around them, there are reasons for them to feel encouraged. Russia no longer looks as badly in danger of losing the war in Ukraine as it did this time last year, while Western support for Kyiv – particularly in the US – is in danger of fracturing. Israel’s war with Hamas threatens to ignite a dangerous regional conflagration that could drag the US back into the Middle East, diverting attention and resources from Ukraine’s struggle for survival, and delaying ever further the long-promised American pivot to focus on great power competition with China.

Scaling new heights of hypocrisy, Russia tabled a draft resolution at the United Nations this week, which China supported, calling for a humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza, even as Russian troops continue to bomb civilian infrastructure in Ukraine. The resolution was swiftly rejected, but it will not be the last.

This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; subscribe to it on Substack here.

[See also: Li Shangfu’s disappearance shows the strength – and weakness – of Xi’s regime]

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