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China’s Xi and Russia’s Putin meet in Beijing

A pool photograph distributed by Russian state owned agency Sputnik showing Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping during a welcoming ceremony at the Third Belt and Road Forum in Beijing on October 17, 2023.

Sergei Savostyanov | Afp | Getty Images

China President Xi Jinping and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin were all smiles when they met in Beijing.

Putin stood to the right of his “dear friend” Xi in a portrait taken Tuesday at the opening banquet of the third installment of the Belt and Road Initiative forum, which marked its 10th anniversary this week.

Deepening bilateral ties between the two countries, along with their shared distrust of the West, has meant Putin has been able to count on Xi for support in his invasion of Ukraine.

“Dear friend, I am very glad to see you again,” Putin said in a statement ahead of his bilateral meeting with Xi Wednesday. “In the current difficult conditions, it is especially in demand close foreign policy coordination.”

Xi is also looking to Putin as China seeks to reinvigorate its economic foreign policy program. In the decade since the Chinese president launched the Belt and Road Initiative, new infrastructure investments have helped extend China’s influence in the developing world.

“When the world is doing well, only then will China do well,” Xi said in his opening address at the Belt and Road Forum Wednesday. “When China is doing well, the world will do even better.”

New projects, though, have slowed with many borrower states finding it difficult to repay their infrastructure debts to Beijing. About 60% of China’s overseas lending is in financial distress today, up from just 5% in 2010, according to AidData at the College of William and Mary.

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Putin traveled to Beijing, knowing Xi would guarantee his safety. After all, the two leaders described the Russia-China relationship as having “no limits,” with “no ‘forbidden’ areas of cooperation” at their February meeting last year — shortly before Putin escalated the war with Ukraine.

When they met in the Kremlin this March, both called each other “dear friend.” Here are the main takeaways from the meeting, which underline why China and Russia share strong ties.

Ukraine war

Putin’s presence in Beijing is important in portraying Russia as part of a new world order that’s being promulgated by Xi, even as the West isolates the Russian leader for his Ukraine invasion.

Beijing has so far resisted condemning the full-scale invasion, insisting that its trade with Moscow — which hit a record high in 2022 — constitutes “normal economic cooperation” that targets no “third party.”

Putin was able to meet with other world leaders on the sidelines of the Belt and Road forum Tuesday, including Thailand Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin and Hungary Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

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Russia will also be expecting China to increase its energy purchases, since the European Union banned the import of Russian seaborne crude oil and refined petroleum products following the invasion of Ukraine.

In 2021, the EU imported 71 billion euros ($75.1 billion) worth of oil from Russia. These import curbs have hit Russia hard, since about half of its total oil exports typically go to the EU.

Russia brought a large delegation to Beijing, which included the chiefs of state oil and gas giants Rosneft and Gazprom, though a senior presidential advisor said Monday no major deals were expected to be signed.

Israel-Hamas war

Putin and Xi were due to discuss the Israel-Hamas war during the visit, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said ahead of their bilateral, according to a Google-translated Telegram post by Tass news agency.

Peskov said Putin “has not yet come up with a peace initiative” on the conflict, and added that “Israel’s ground operation in the Gaza Strip is fraught with dire consequences.”

China and the former Soviet Union have historically backed the Palestinian cause for decades, with Beijing advocating for a two-state solution.

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While Russia has traditionally enjoyed warm ties with Israel, its role as a mediator is complicated by its deep military ties with Iran since its Ukraine invasion. Iran and Israel are enemies, given Tehran’s long-time support for Hamas, the militant group that launched deadly dawn attacks on southern Israel on Oct. 7, sparking the ongoing war.

On the other hand, Beijing had to balance its objections to Israel’s retaliatory actions against Hamas’ deadly attacks with its broader efforts to cultivate allies in the Middle East in its coalition against the U.S.

“Israel’s actions have gone beyond self-defense and it should heed the call of the international community and the Secretary-General of the United Nations to stop its collective punishment of the people in Gaza,” China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi reportedly told his Saudi Arabia counterpart Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud in a call Sunday.

U.S. hegemony

The extent by which China and Russia will be able to mediate among warring factions in the Israel-Hamas war may go a long way in helping them foster goodwill in China’s quest for a new world order.

In many ways, Russia and China are bonded by their common strategic aim in countering the geopolitical challenge that the U.S. and Europe have mounted against Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine and China’s economic and military power.

In fact, China and Russia view the war in Ukraine as a challenge to that U.S.-led world order, as well as a way to undermine it. Therefore, it is not in China’s interest to see Russia losing this war — though Beijing is careful not to risk sanctions just to support Russia too overtly.

Reviving the Belt and Road Initiative is another way Xi will hope to offer a plausible alternative to the U.S.-led world order.

“What we advocate is that we can live well and let others live well. What we practice is interconnection, mutual benefit and reciprocity. What we pursue is common development and win-win cooperation,” Xi told delegates gathered Wednesday at the Great Hall of the People on the edges of Tiananmen Square in Beijing.

“We stand against unilateral sanctions, economic coercion, decoupling and disrupting supply chain links,” he added.

These are undoubtedly in reference to the U.S., which has been pushing hard to limit U.S. investment in China technology in its broader drive to curb China’s access to strategic technology, though the Biden administration insists it’s based on national security and not aimed at stifling China’s economy.

The U.S. Department of Commerce announced new rules on Tuesday to close loopholes that popped up after last year’s restrictions on AI chip exports to China went into effect.

This pool photograph distributed by Russian state owned agency Sputnik shows Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping and his wife Peng Liyuan pose for a photo with heads of delegations participating in the Third Belt and Road Forum in Beijing on October 17, 2023.

Sergei Savostyanov | Afp | Getty Images

“China’s post-pandemic reopening to multilateral summitry is the main political message of the third Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation,” China analysts from Eurasia Group wrote in a note Tuesday.

“While the BRI has become synonymous with large-scale infrastructure, Beijing has signaled that the next iteration will be more modest in its ambitions,” they added. “Since 2021, President Xi Jinping has called for ‘small and beautiful’ projects to replace the mega-infrastructure developments that had defined the initiative’s early years.”

“China is also shifting its focus toward newer priorities of green development, digital connectivity, and health rather than hard infrastructure,” Eurasia said.

— CNBC’s Jenni Reid, Karen Gilchrist, Hannah Ward-Glenton and Holly Ellyatt contributed to this article.

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