Russian President Vladimir Putin said he sought to address Beijing’s concerns Thursday about the Ukraine war in his first meeting with Chinese leader Xi Jinping since the start of the conflict, which has recently brought major battlefield setbacks for Moscow.
Mr. Putin told his Chinese counterpart that Moscow highly values what he called Beijing’s balanced position regarding the Ukraine crisis. He added that the Kremlin would clarify its position on Ukraine, without explaining further.
“We understand your questions and your concerns,” he said, in remarks broadcast on Russian state television from the meeting, which took place at a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Uzbekistan.
He also struck out at the U.S. for what he called provocations in Taiwan and said Moscow would adhere to its One China policy, which asserts that the People’s Republic of China is the sole legitimate government of China.
China and Russia have maintained “an effective strategic communication” since the beginning of the year, Mr. Xi said in the meeting, according to state-run Xinhua News Agency.
“In the face of historical changes in the world and times, as major countries, China is willing to work together with Russia to play a leading role and to inject stability into the turbulent world,” said Mr. Xi.
Most notable was Mr. Putin’s public admission that China has concerns about Russia’s war in Ukraine, said Craig Singleton, a former U.S. diplomat and a senior China fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a conservative think tank based in Washington. He noted that the Chinese government’s official readout of the meeting made no mention of Ukraine, which signaled that Beijing had no intention of increasing its support for Russia, even as Moscow’s war effort stalls.
“China is also rightly concerned that its continued support for Russia’s invasion has badly damaged both Sino-European relations as well as China’s relationships throughout Central Asia, where most countries are on record as being against Putin’s invasion,” he said.
With the world’s second-largest economy and a shared interest in countering the West, China might be Russia’s most important partner as Moscow weathers many international economic sanctions. At their last meeting, just before the start of the war, the two leaders declared that the relationship between the two countries has “no limits.”
At the time, Russia had nearly 200,000 soldiers within striking distance of Kyiv. Since then, Russia’s invading forces have been driven back from the Ukrainian capital and dealt a number of battlefield blows. Last week, a Ukrainian advance routed Russian soldiers in northeastern Ukraine. On the heels of that and other defeats that have raised questions about Russian capabilities, Mr. Putin might need to dial down his expectations for meaningful assistance from Mr. Xi or their Central Asian counterparts.
While China has been an important trading partner for Russia, with Beijing’s oil purchases helping to offset a decline in exports to Europe, Beijing has been careful not to run afoul of Western sanctions. Chinese leaders have said the country isn’t selling weapons to Russia.
The Russian economy, cushioned by a windfall from high-price energy exports, has defied earlier expectations of a severe recession. Russian officials have significantly revised forecasts, most recently predicting gross domestic product to fall by 2.9% this year compared with a year earlier. Previously the government had said it expected a contraction of nearly 10%.
Still, the outlook remains bleak, economists say, as sanctions on critical imports and an exodus of Western companies are expected to degrade the long-term potential of the economy.
Ahead of the meeting, the Kremlin said that ties between Moscow and Beijing were stronger than they have ever been, and that trade between the two countries this year had risen by a quarter from 2021, when Russian-Chinese bilateral trade hit a record of $140 billion.
The most interesting discussions between China and Russia on Thursday likely took place behind closed doors, said Alex Gabuev, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment and an expert on Russia-Chinese ties. He said the main thrust of the talks was likely about economic partnerships like Power of Siberia 2, an additional proposed Russian gas pipeline to China, as well as how much Beijing could sell its technology to Russia without triggering sanctions.
Mr. Putin will need China “to continue to export semiconductors, without which both Russia’s civil but also military industrial capacity cannot continue to operate,” said Alicia García Herrero, chief economist for Asia Pacific at Natixis. “This is becoming increasingly difficult due to the U.S. expanding export bans on semiconductors.”
The summit in Samarkand, which concludes on Friday, will include Iran as the ninth member of the regional security bloc founded by China, Russia and Central Asian countries in 2001. The leaders are also expected to issue a declaration on its position on international and economic issues. Such announcements are likely to further fuel U.S. concern about an anti-American axis between the two powers that could threaten Washington’s security and economic interests.
Both Chinese and Russian leaders see U.S. foreign policy as being part of a grand strategy to contain the rise and influence of the two major powers through America’s economic heft and its global network of alliances. They have challenged the U.S.-led international order, saying that America’s democratic system isn’t superior to other forms of governance and that Washington is losing authority in the world.
Beijing sees America’s commitment to defend Taiwan and its support for Vietnam in its maritime disputes as a threat, while Moscow views Washington’s backing for Ukraine and other former Soviet republics such as Georgia as a menace. In their last joint statement issued when Mr. Putin and Mr. Xi met in Beijing in February, they opposed expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and Washington’s efforts to strengthen its alliances in the Indo-Pacific.
“It is a very useful and important strategic alignment,” said Raffaello Pantucci, a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, a defense and security think tank. “They are two strongmen who don’t share a language. But they do share a worldview, and they agree on who their main threats and enemies are.”
Nevertheless, China has walked a careful line in its dealings with Moscow to avoid being ensnared in any potential sanctions and alienating other countries, such as those in Central Asia, where China is building economic ties. Kazakhstan, the regional economic heavyweight that shares a border with Russia, has refused to support Russia’s actions in Ukraine, a decision that has boosted tensions between the two countries.
Mr. Xi has a lot at stake in a strategic partnership with Russia, but if he goes too far, he risks damaging relationships with some of the Central Asian countries who are wary of Moscow’s war in Ukraine, said Evan Feigenbaum, vice president at the Carnegie Endowment in Washington and a former deputy assistant secretary of state.
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Beijing signed a new railway agreement with Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, China’s Xinhua News Agency reported on Thursday, an ambitious plan to link the Central Asian countries with China that has been under discussion for nearly two decades. Beijing sees the new route as an alternative to its current dependence on a route through Russia and Kazakhstan for overland transit to Europe. That has become even more important in light of the Ukraine war.
“The China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway will link us to Asia-Pacific countries, paving the way for new economic opportunities. It will be a great addition to the existing east-west railways,” Uzbekistan’s president, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, said at a May 27 meeting of the Eurasian Economic Union, a Moscow-led trade and economic bloc made up of former Soviet states.
The Central Asians will privately express their discomfort to China if Beijing gets too close to Moscow, said Mr. Feigenbaum.
China has tried to balance those interests by keeping its commitments vague. The country is ready to work with Russia to take the global order in a “more just and rational direction,” China’s top diplomat, Yang Jiechi, said in a meeting Monday with Russian Ambassador Andrey Denisov in Beijing, without detailing any explicit pledges of support.
—Charles Hutzler contributed to this article.
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