BEIJING: Russia may be taking heavy battlefield casualties in Ukraine and punishing Western sanctions, but China remains steadfast in its support for President Vladimir Putin and “boundless” friendship.
Chinese leader Xi Jinping is due to meet Putin at a regional summit in Uzbekistan this week, in a public show of unity that goes against the US-led campaign to isolate Russia over its war in Ukraine.
Although Beijing has not explicitly endorsed the invasion of Moscow, it has steadily forged economic and strategic ties with Russia during the six-month war, and President Xi has assured his counterpart of his support for “sovereignty and Russian security.
Analysts say that as China-US relations crumble, Beijing believes it must nurture the bond with its giant northern neighbour.
“Regardless of whether Russia wins (in Ukraine), China will pursue close alignment with Russia, which is decided by the current state of US-China relations more than anything else,” said Yun Sun, director of the China program at the Washington-Stimson Center, told AFP.
As the world’s second-largest nuclear power, “Russia is not a geopolitical power that can be eliminated,” Sun said.
China sees Russia as an important partner in moving international institutions away from Washington’s sphere of dominance.
On Monday, senior diplomat Yang Jiechi told Russian Ambassador to China Andrey Denisov that Xi and Putin could work together to “promote the development of the international order in a more just and rational direction.”
And in trade terms, China has increased its oil purchases from Russia in recent months, with Russia becoming China’s top oil supplier for three consecutive months from May to July, helping to offset Moscow’s losses.
Sino-US relations have been strained for years, with a trade war showing no signs of abating while Washington accuses Beijing of human rights abuses.
In August, ties hit a dramatic new low when US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited self-governing Taiwan, angering Beijing, which considers the island part of its territory.
The Chinese government responded with massive military exercises and missile launches around Taiwan, and canceled cooperation with the United States in several areas, including key climate talks.
Last week, Xi sent his government’s top lawmaker, Li Zhanshu, to Russia, where he met with Putin.
“The mutual political trust, strategic coordination and pragmatic cooperation between the two countries have reached an unprecedented level,” Li said, according to state media.
Li’s visit came as Russia suffered a series of major military setbacks in Ukraine, with troops from Kyiv retaking swaths of territory.
But if Russia is “weakened in the war, it’s not necessarily bad news for China, as it will become more dominant in bilateral relations,” the Sun analyst said.
A closer look at Li’s trip also reveals that China is still keen to avoid being hit by Western sanctions over the war in Ukraine, even as Moscow paints Beijing as a supporter of its invasion.
Russia claimed in a parliamentary reading that Li said “we fully understand the need for all measures taken by Russia to protect its key interests, we are providing assistance.”
The line did not appear in China’s official reports of the interaction, hinting at a disconnect in messages from both sides.
“As Russia’s position deteriorates, Putin will seek increased Chinese support,” said Hal Brands, professor of global affairs at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, in comments posted to Twitter last week.
Xi and Putin are due to meet in person this week on the sidelines of a regional leaders’ summit.
It will be their first meeting since the Russian leader’s visit to Beijing in February, where the two presidents declared that “the friendship between the two states has no limits”.
The meeting comes “at a time of great fluidity on the battlefield, which may mean that Russia is particularly hoping for Chinese help,” said Joseph Torigian, a foreign policy expert at the American University in Washington, DC. .
“We don’t know how harsh the demands will be and how much China thinks it can help without sacrificing its own economic interests,” he told AFP.

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