Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin sat across from each other on the opposite ends of a conference room on Thursday, in their first in-person meeting since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The two leaders have developed a close personal bond. During his decade in power, Xi has met Putin 39 times — more than twice as many times as he has met any other world leader.
President Putin expressed veiled disappointment with China but praised its “balanced position” on the Ukraine war.
He, however, conceded Beijing had “questions and concerns” over the invasion, in what appeared to be a veiled admission of their diverging views over the protracted military assault.
He made the comments when meeting the Chinese leader in person for the first time since the invasion at a regional summit in Uzbekistan, days after Russia suffered a series of major military setbacks in Ukraine.
Russian troops are retreating en mass, having lost more territory in a week than they captured in five months.
China has so far refused to outright condemn Russia’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine while stepping up economic assistance to its neighbor, boosting bilateral trade to record levels in a boon to Russian business amid Western sanctions.
“We highly appreciate the balanced position of our Chinese friends in connection with the Ukrainian crisis. We understand your questions and concerns in this regard.
“During today’s meeting, of course, we will explain in detail our position on this issue, although we have spoken about this before,” Putin said in an opening speech of the meeting.
Xi said China would “work with Russia to extend strong mutual support on issues concerning each other’s core interests” and “play a leading role in injecting stability and positive energy into a world of change and disorder,” according to a readout from the meeting provided by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Xi also said he appreciated “Russia’s adherence to the one-China principle and stressed that Taiwan is a part of China.”
The two authoritarian leaders have emerged as close partners in recent years, propelled by growing conflict with the West and a strong personal bond.
China has offered tacit support for Russia’s actions in Ukraine, while Moscow has backed Beijing and criticized Washington over US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taipei in August. Beijing responded to her trip with unprecedented military drills around the self-governing democratic island, which it claims as its own territory.
In their meeting Thursday, Putin condemned the United States for what he said were “provocations” in the Taiwan Strait, and criticized what he claimed were attempts to “create a unipolar world.”
Those attempts, he said, have “recently taken an ugly shape and are absolutely unacceptable to most states on the planet.”
The two are holding talks on the sidelines of a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a regional security-focused grouping that also includes India, Pakistan and four Central Asian nations.
Beijing carefully avoiding Western sanctions
Faced with punishing western sanctions as result of its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, Russia has sought ever closer ties with China.
Beijing has carefully avoided violating Western sanctions or providing direct military support to Moscow.
This balancing act, experts say, is a sign that Xi won’t sacrifice China’s economic interests to rescue Putin, who arrived at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Uzbekistan this week with his army retreating from large swathes of Ukrainian territory.
But the trading relationship is booming, in a lopsided way, as Russia desperately seeks new markets and China — an economy 10 times the size — scrambles for cheap commodities.
Trade in bilateral goods is at record levels as China snaps up oil and coal to tackle an energy crisis. Russia, meanwhile, has become a top market for China’s currency, and Chinese companies are rushing to fill the vacuum left by departing Western brands.
China’s spending on Russian goods soared 60% in August from a year ago, hitting $11.2 billion, according to Chinese customs statistics, surpassing July’s 49% gain.
Its shipments to Russia, meanwhile, jumped 26% to $8 billion in August, also accelerating from the previous month.
For the first eight months of this year, total goods trade between China and Russia surged 31% to $117.2 billion. That’s already 80% of last year’s total — which stood at a record $147 billion.
“Russia needs China more than China needs Russia,” said Keith Krach, former Under Secretary of State for Economic growth, Energy and the Environment in the United States.
“As the war in Ukraine drags on, Putin’s losing friends fast and increasingly becoming more and more dependent on China,” he added.
For China, Russia now accounts for 2.8% of its total trade volume, slightly higher than the 2.5% share at the end of last year. The European Union and United States have much bigger shares.
China was already Russia’s largest single trading partner before the war, and accounted for 16% of its total foreign trade.
But the world’s second biggest economy has assumed much greater significance for Russia, which has plunged into a recession because of the Western sanctions.