Xi and Putin to speak via video as grinding Ukraine war tests China-Russia partnership
Hong Kong CNN –
Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin are scheduled to speak Friday via video conference, the Kremlin said – with analysts watching for any sign of the Chinese leader’s softening support for his Russian counterpart as the war in Ukraine drags on and as China grapples with a Covid unprecedented. explosion.
The two leaders will mainly discuss bilateral relations between their countries and exchange views on regional issues and their strategic partnership, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Thursday.
Moscow and Beijing have grown closer in recent years, with Xi and Putin declaring the two countries had a “borderless” partnership weeks before Russia invaded Ukraine in February.
Since then, China has refused to condemn the aggression, instead repeatedly blaming the conflict on NATO and the United States — and remaining one of Russia’s main remaining backers as it becomes increasingly isolated on the global stage.
But more than 10 months after 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 has faltered with numerous setbacks on the battlefield, including a lack of basic equipment. Morale within parts of Russia is low, with many civilians facing economic hardship during the bitter winter.
On Thursday, Russia launched what Ukrainian officials described as one of the biggest barrages of rockets since the war began in February, with explosions rocking villages and towns across 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 power grid to close out 2022, plunging the country into darkness as Ukrainians try to ring in the New Year and celebrate the Christmas holidays, which for the country’s Orthodox Christians, it falls on January 7.
“China is eager for (the war) to end,” said Yun Sun, director of the China Program at the Washington-based 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, too, is becoming more insular in its attitude toward Russia, said Alfred Wu, 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 strong stance on war.
Although India has not fully condemned Moscow’s invasion, Modi told Putin in September that now was not the time for war and urged him to move towards peace.
That shift means China now stands further alone in its relationship with Russia, another reason why Xi may be eager to see a quick resolution, Wu said.
Xi had already shown 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” over the invasion, in what appeared to be a tacit acknowledgment of their differing views.
But, experts say, China’s domestic situation has also changed significantly in the coming months, which may require a different approach to Putin this time around.
The country is currently battling its worst-ever Covid outbreak after finally abandoning its strict zero-Covid policy, with restrictions loosened and borders partially reopened. The U-turn comes 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.
At the center of this crisis is Xi – who entered a norm-breaking third term in October with a tight grip on power and a tight circle of loyalists.
“Now with domestic issues out of the way, Xi is in a better position to work with 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 have often expressed a shared vision of a new world order.
“Both leaders will emphasize their partnership, cooperation and strong ties. They will want to send the message that they are all over the war in Ukraine,” Sun said. “(The war) has been a concern 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 was “fundamental to both countries,” pointing to China’s ability to benefit from the war in Ukraine because of its access to Russian oil.
However, he added, China’s protests, the Covid outbreak and the toll on the economic fallout have put Xi in a more vulnerable position that could mean less material and overt support for Russia.
“The policy tools that Xi Jinping can use to support Russia are quite limited now, it’s quite limited,” Wu said. “Politically, domestic support for Xi has fallen dramatically. His third term doesn’t really start out rosy.”