The first in-person meeting between
since the start of the Ukraine war is expected to include discussions between the two leaders on how to deepen their economic ties as Russia faces setbacks on the battlefield.
The meeting, which is expected to take place this week at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Uzbekistan, comes as Russia loses ground in the war Mr. Putin started nearly seven months ago. Ukraine said it has retaken 3,500 square miles of territory held by Russian forces since the start of an offensive earlier this month.
The meeting will mark Mr. Xi’s first trip out of China since Covid-19 began spreading in the central Chinese city of Wuhan and is intended to signal Beijing’s commitment to its relationship with Moscow and its willingness to stand up to Washington.
Strikes hit Kharkiv on Monday, a day after a blaze broke out at a power plant damaged by a Russian missile, causing blackouts in the region. As Ukraine recaptures more territory, rare criticism of Russia’s war tactics emerged on Russian state television. Photo: Juan Barreto/AFP
Russia’s recent military setbacks in Ukraine have given Mr. Xi an upper hand in dealing with Moscow as Mr. Putin could ask his Chinese counterpart for additional economic assistance to help counteract sanctions, analysts said, but it wouldn’t affect overall cooperation between the two powers because they will continue to share a strategic interest of countering the West.
“Whether Russia wins or loses, China will not change its willingness to further develop ties with Russia, because that is determined by the overall geopolitical dynamics, especially the deterioration of Sino-U.S. relations,” said Yun Sun, director of the China Program at the Stimson Center, a think tank in Washington. “If Russia wins, China will gain a powerful ally. Even if Russia loses, it will likely become a vassal of China.”
The two leaders last met in February in Beijing on the sidelines of the Winter Olympics and just before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and signed a joint statement declaring that the partnership between the two countries had “no limits.” Since then, Moscow has been fighting a grinding war that has drawn punishing economic sanctions from the U.S. and its allies, and Beijing has had to battle a slowing economy that has been weighed down by its strict Covid policies.
Mr. Xi is the only leader of the Group of 20 industrialized nations who hasn’t traveled abroad during the pandemic. His trip to Central Asia just weeks before an important political gathering in Beijing, where he is expected to claim a third term, signaled his confidence about his political hand within China’s Communist Party despite the slowing economy.
Western leaders have prepared for the possibility that Russian natural gas flows through the Nord Stream pipeline may never return to full levels. WSJ’s Shelby Holliday explains what an energy crisis could look like in Europe, and how it might ripple through the world. Illustration: David Fang
Mr. Putin could seek to push through an agreement on Power of Siberia 2, a gas pipeline that would carry Russian gas to China, which has been the subject of largely stalled negotiations between the two countries. Last week at the Eastern Economic Forum in Russia’s far-eastern port city of Vladivostok, Mr. Putin suggested that Moscow and Beijing have agreed on the parameters of a deal on the pipeline.
Moscow could also ask Beijing to provide certain high-tech products, such as advanced semiconductors, but Beijing might be reluctant to help as Chinese officials have been careful to try to avoid getting entangled in Western sanctions aimed at punishing Russia economically over the war.
The Chinese exports to Russia have already become a source of concern for U.S. officials. In June, the Commerce Department added five Chinese electronics companies to a trade blacklist for allegedly helping Russia’s defense industry, both before the invasion and after it began.
The Chinese government has sought to present itself as a neutral party in Russia’s war in Ukraine. Chinese officials have said the country isn’t selling weapons to Russia, but they also haven’t condemned the invasion and have accused the U.S. of inflaming the crisis.
Russia was one of the few countries that publicly expressed support for Beijing after House Speaker
visit to Taiwan. Russia said the trip was provocative and warned that it threatened to heighten tensions in the Asian region. Mrs. Pelosi’s trip prompted Chinese officials to begin making preparations for Mr. Xi’s trip to attend the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the Journal has reported.
The organization, which is a regional security bloc founded by China, Russia and Central Asian states in 2001, has been described by some observers as a “NATO of the East,” referring to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. It was expanded in 2017 to include India and Pakistan and is now expected to expand again to add Iran.
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President Biden is expected to meet Mr. Xi at a G-20 meeting in Indonesia in November, which would be the first in-person meeting between the two leaders since Mr. Biden became president. The White House has said that China hasn’t contributed substantially to Russia’s war efforts and isn’t evading sanctions.
China’s No. 3 official,
decried sanctions against Russia and urged greater cooperation “fighting against external interference” last week at the Eastern Economic Forum. He also said that Russia’s sanctions-hit economy was resilient and that energy cooperation between China and Russia would continue to grow.
The majority of the decline in Russian oil shipments to Europe has been offset by Indian and Chinese oil purchases. Russian oil exports to China totaled 7.15 million tons in July, up 7.6% from a year ago, according to the latest data from China’s General Administration of Customs. China and India are also buying other commodities such as coal and fertilizer.
Russia’s imports from China have been a huge help in filling the gap left by foreign brands. Autostat, a Russian agency that analyzes the auto industry in Russia, reports that more than 80% of Russia’s new imports of cars were Chinese during the second quarter. Chinese exports to Russia of microchips and other electronic components and raw materials, some with military applications, have increased.
The two countries have also continued to enhance their military cooperation. Chinese troops participated in joint military exercises in Russia earlier this month. Beijing’s Defense Ministry said China’s participation in the exercises was unrelated to the regional and international situation, in an apparent reference to Taiwan and Ukraine.
Despite Russia’s recent battlefield setbacks in Ukraine, experts on China’s foreign policy cautioned that it was too early to make greater predictions about the contours of the war.
“No one should realistically believe that the war in Ukraine will end in Russia’s ultimate defeat,” said Victor Gao, a former Chinese diplomat and the vice president of the Beijing-based Center for China and Globalization.
Still, Beijing will be watching carefully to see whether the situation at the front lines affects the stability of Mr. Putin’s regime, said Alexander Gabuev, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Though Beijing likes Mr. Putin, they wouldn’t actively seek to prop him up, Mr. Gabuev said. “They will watch what happens and then adapt,” Mr. Gabuev said.
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