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Putin, Xi agree to deepen partnership as Russia advances in Ukraine

HONG KONG — They have already declared that there are “no limits” and on Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged to deepen a partnership increasingly characterized by conflict between their countries and the West.

The two autocratic leaders met in Beijing in a show of unity between the two US rivals as Putin leads a new offensive in his war against Ukraine.

Putin’s two-day state visit to China is his first foreign trip since the start of his fifth term, marked by a reshuffle of his military leadership. It comes as Russia has taken the initiative in the war, now in its third year, and the United States is stepping up pressure on China to do more to stop it.

In February 2022, days before Putin invaded Ukraine, he and Xi declared a “limitless” partnership, and the two longtime leaders are personal friends. On Thursday, they signed a joint declaration deepening the comprehensive strategic partnership between their two countries.

It’s not the same as a formal alliance, but the possibility that China and Russia could one day form one constitutes a kind of “strategic ambiguity” that may constrain the United States and others , said Natasha Kuhrt, lecturer in international peace and politics. security at King’s College London.

“They can keep us guessing whether or not they’re going to escalate, whether or not they’re going to strengthen the partnership and the direction of an alliance and that in itself is a kind of deterrent,” she said. at NBC News.

Relations between China and Russia, which are celebrating 75 years of diplomatic ties during Putin’s visit, have been severely strained by the war in Ukraine and Putin’s growing international isolation from Western opposition.

Although China has sought to present itself as neutral in the conflict, it has provided Russia with diplomatic support as well as advanced technologies for civilian and military use. It is also an increasingly important economic partner for Russia, becoming one of the main markets for its Western-sanctioned oil and gas.

China also presented a vague 12-point peace plan that would allow Russia to retain its territorial gains in Ukraine and was rejected by the West.

On Thursday, Putin said he was “grateful” for Chinese initiatives to resolve the war in Ukraine, while Xi said China “hopes for Europe’s early return to peace and stability and will continue to play a constructive role in this regard.

Although he is always ready to show his support for his “dear friend” Putin, Xi must also consider what this could cost him in his relations with the United States and Europe.

The United States, which last month approved $60 billion in military aid to Ukraine that is just beginning to arrive, has imposed a series of sanctions on Chinese companies accused of contributing to the Russian war effort and also threaten to sanction Chinese banks.

During a visit to Beijing last month, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that “Russia would have difficulty continuing its assault on Ukraine without support from China” and that he had told officials Chinese that “if China does not solve this problem, we will”.

Xi, who seeks to retain or expand his foreign markets amid a domestic economic slowdown, is also reluctant to alienate European leaders. Last week, during his first visit to the continent in five years, Xi came under pressure from French President Emmanuel Macron and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen to use his influence on Putin to end the war in Ukraine.

Xi rejected their criticism of his country’s relations with Russia and said China was not participating in the war. But that pressure could be having an effect: After a record $240 billion in global trade between China and Russia last year, Chinese exports to Russia fell in March for the first time since 2022.

Xi and Putin have also abandoned the term “no holds barred” when it comes to talking about their ties.

“Xi doesn’t really talk about it in those terms anymore. It talks about good neighborly relations, comprehensive strategic coordination and mutually beneficial cooperation,” Kuhrt said. “And Russia is talking about flexible strategic partnerships.”

Victor Gao, vice president of the Beijing-based Center for China and Globalization, said China did not have to choose between Russia and the West.

“I think China should make continuous efforts to improve China-West relations. In fact, this is not contradictory to the improvement of relations between China and Russia,” said Gao, who is also a full professor at Soochow University.

Putin and Xi in Beijing on Thursday. Sergey Guneyev / AP

Putin arrived in the Chinese capital on Thursday morning and was greeted with full military honors in front of the Great Hall of the People, next to Tiananmen Square, where he shook hands with Xi before heading inside for talks. interviews.

Besides Beijing, Putin is expected to visit the northeastern city of Harbin, near the 2,600-mile border between the two countries, which is hosting a Sino-Russian trade fair this week.

In an interview Wednesday with Xinhua, China’s official news agency, Putin cited the “unprecedented level of strategic partnership between our countries” as the reason he made China the first stop of his fifth term.

Among those traveling with Putin is Andrei Belousov, an economist who this week was named Russian defense minister in a surprise reshuffle. His predecessor, Sergei Choïgu, is also on the trip.

Russia’s new offensive in northern Ukraine has already made progress, raising concerns in kyiv and its allies about the ability of Putin’s army to make decisive progress in the coming weeks.

Xi, 70, and Putin, 71, have met more than 40 times, in person or virtually. Putin was last in Beijing in October, while Xi was in Moscow days after securing an unprecedented third term as Chinese president in March 2023.

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