Xi and Putin speak via video as the bitter war in Ukraine tests the Sino-Russian partnership

Xi and Putin speak via video as the bitter war in Ukraine tests the Sino-Russian partnership

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Hong Kong

A video conference meeting between Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin is underway, with analysts watching for any sign of the Chinese leader softening his support for his Russian counterpart as the war in Ukraine drags on and as China faces an unprecedented Covid outbreak.

In opening remarks broadcast on Russian television, Putin invited Xi to visit Moscow next spring. He added that the two countries would increase cooperation between their armed forces and pointed to growth in trade despite “adverse market conditions”.

Bilateral relations are “the best in history and stand all the tests,” he said. “We share the same views on the causes, course and logic of the ongoing transformation of the global geopolitical landscape.”

Xi also made opening remarks, saying that “against a difficult international situation, China is ready to increase political cooperation with Russia” and be a “global partner,” according to a translation of the broadcast by Russian state media.

Moscow and Beijing have grown closer in recent years, with Xi and Putin declaring the two countries had a “boundless” partnership weeks before Russia invaded Ukraine in February.

Since then, China has refused to condemn the aggression, instead repeatedly blaming NATO and the United States for the conflict — and remains one of Russia’s main remaining backers as it grows increasingly isolated on the global stage.

But more than 10 months into the bitter war, the world looks much different – and the dynamic between the two partners has changed accordingly, experts say.

Instead of an expected quick victory, Putin’s invasion was delayed by numerous battlefield failures, inclusive lack of basic equipment. Morale in some parts of Russia is low, many civilians are on the line economic difficulties during the bitter winter.

On Thursday, Russia launched what Ukrainian officials described as one of the the largest missile strikes since the war began in February with explosions rocking villages and towns in Ukraine, damaging civilian infrastructure and killing at least three people.

Ukrainian officials have warned for days that Russia is preparing to launch an all-out attack on the electricity grid to close out 2022, plunging the country into darkness as Ukrainians try to welcome the New Year and celebrate the Christmas holidays, which for Orthodox Christians in the country falls on January 7.

“China is anxious for (the war) to end,” said Yun Sun, director of the China Program at the Washington-based think tank Stimson Center.

“Xi will try to emphasize the importance of peace for Putin,” she added. “As Russia grows impatient with the lack of progress on the battlefield, the time is ripe for peace talks in China’s eyes.”

China is also becoming increasingly isolated in its stance vis-à-vis Russia, said Alfred Wu, an associate professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore.

Wu pointed to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi as an example of Russia’s hardening attitude to the war.

Although India did not directly condemn Moscow’s incursion, Modi told Putin in September that now was not the time for war and urged him to move toward peace.

That shift means China is now even more alone in its relationship with Russia, another reason Xi may be eager to see a quick resolution, Wu said.

Xi already showed signs of impatience when he last met Putin in September at a regional summit in Uzbekistan. At the time, Putin acknowledged that Beijing had “questions and concerns” about the invasion, which appeared to be a veiled acknowledgment of their differing views.

But experts say China’s domestic situation has also changed significantly in the months since, which may require a different approach to Putin this time around.

The country is currently battling its worst outbreak of Covid since finally abandoning its strict zero-Covid policy, with loose constraints and partially open borders. The reversal came after an unprecedented wave of protests across the country in opposition to Zero Covid – in some cases expanding to include broader grievances against Xi and the ruling Communist Party.

IN center of this crisis is Si – who entered norm-breaking third term in October, with a firm grip on power and a narrow circle of loyal supporters.

“Now that the domestic problems are out of the way, Xi is in a better position to work on Russia,” said the Stimson Center’s Sun, referring to his consolidation of power in October.

She added that despite the unpopularity of the war, China and Russia “are aligned because of geopolitics.” Both countries face tensions with the West, and both leaders often tout a shared vision of a new world order.

“The two leaders will emphasize their partnership, cooperation and strong ties. They will want to send the message that they are all above the war in Ukraine,” Sun said. “(The war) has been an inconvenience for China in the past year and has affected China’s interest in Europe. But the damage is not so significant that China will abandon Russia.

Wu also acknowledged that the relationship is “fundamental to both countries,” pointing to China’s ability to profit from the war in Ukraine because of its access to Russian oil.

However, he added, the protests in China, the Covid outbreak and the resulting economic damage have put Xi in a more vulnerable position, which could mean less material and overt support for Russia.

“The political tools that Xi Jinping can use to support Russia are now quite limited, they are quite limited,” Wu said. “Politically, domestic support for Xi has declined dramatically. His third term doesn’t really start on a rosy picture.

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