ANALYSIS: Putin’s China Visit Highlights Uneasy Alliance Amid Western Scrutiny and Sanctions

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‘It seems ... there are significant differences in interests between China and Russia,’ Chinese legal scholar Du Wen told The Epoch Times.

Russian President Vladimir Putin concluded a two-day state visit to China on May 17. Despite claims by China and Russia of strengthening their ‘Comprehensive Strategic Partnership of Coordination for the New Era,’ no breakthrough agreements were reached. However, experts pointed out that China seems to have some reservations about deepening military and economic ties with Russia.

Mr. Putin arrived in Beijing on May 16, marking his second visit to China in seven months and his first trip abroad since his reelection. China rolled out the red carpet at the airport, with a rare appearance by a female official, state councilor Shen Yiqin, to welcome him.

Some in the Chinese press described Ms. Shen’s role in greeting Mr. Putin as a special arrangement, showing Beijing’s high regard for him and reflecting warm relations between the two countries.

Chinese-American author and political analyst Chen Pokong expressed surprise at Ms. Shen’s involvement, noting that her work had no connection with diplomacy, commerce, or trade. He suggested that this arrangement was a deliberate move by Beijing to reduce attention from the United States and Europe, signaling goodwill towards them.

Putin’s Need for CCP Support

In Feb. 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine. Over the past two years, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has become an important ally of Russia, which drew significant scrutiny from the United States and the European Union. Facing severe sanctions from Western countries, Russia’s economy has decoupled from the West, making Mr. Putin highly reliant on Beijing for diplomatic and economic support.

According to data from China’s General Administration of Customs, China-Russia trade reached a record $240.1 billion in 2023, a year-on-year increase of 26.3 percent, exceeding the leaders’ previous targets.

Mineral resources, including oil, coal, and petroleum products, accounted for 73 percent of Russian exports to China, making up nearly 40 percent of bilateral trade. China’s exports to Russia mainly consisted of electromechanical products, home appliances, and cars, which accounted for nearly 40 percent of its total exports to Russia. In 2023, China imported 107 million tons of oil from Russia, making Russia China’s largest oil supplier.

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Russia also sells natural gas to China at low prices. In Feb. 2024, Russian energy giant Gazprom announced it had surpassed Turkmenistan to become China’s largest natural gas supplier.

Before his visit, Mr. Putin told the CCP mouthpiece Xinhua News Agency that in the past five years, China-Russia trade has doubled, with China being Russia’s largest trading partner for 13 consecutive years. He emphasized that future cooperation will focus on industrial and high-tech sectors, space, nuclear energy, artificial intelligence, renewable energy, and other innovative fields. He described China as a “good neighbor and reliable friend.”

CCP’s Conflicted Interests

Despite Mr. Putin’s high praise for the bilateral friendship, Chinese leader Xi Jinping may have some reservations. The joint statement released on May 16 no longer included the phrase friendship with “no limits” and “no forbidden areas,” which was used previously to describe China-Russia relations.

During the press conference after the meeting with Mr. Putin, Xi stated that both sides would uphold the principles of “non-alignment, non-confrontation, and not targeting any third party.” He emphasized the need to find common interests, leverage each other’s advantages, deepen integration, and achieve mutual accomplishments.

U.S.-based China affairs commentator Tang Jingyuan told The Epoch Times on May 17 that the broad content of the joint statement indicates comprehensive cooperation between the two countries. However, in reality, it mainly involves the CCP supporting and aiding Russia.

“After more than two years of the Russia-Ukraine War, Russia’s treasury is depleted, and it is now entirely dependent on the CCP for support,” he said. “In this context, China-Russia relations have changed, and the positions of Putin and Xi have reversed.”

Du Wen, a Chinese legal scholar residing in Belgium, believes that Mr. Putin’s visit aimed to persuade Xi to continue providing military and economic aid. He told The Epoch Times that Mr. Putin’s team tried to alleviate Xi’s concerns about Western sanctions and convince Xi not to fear these sanctions while continuing to support Russia.

“However, it seems the CCP has not fully listened to Putin’s suggestions, and there are significant differences in interests between China and Russia,” he said. He noted that from Xi’s statements, it is clear that the CCP firmly supports Russia but will not sacrifice its position in the global industrial chain. Therefore, the bottom line of China-Russia cooperation does not include military cooperation which is unacceptable to the West. Moreover, their cooperation is not “unlimited” and must align with CCP interests.

US, EU Warnings to China

Before Mr. Putin’s visit, Xi had just concluded a visit to Europe. On May 6, the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, at the invitation of French President Emmanuel Macron, held a meeting with Xi in Paris. Ms. Von der Leyen stated that she and Mr. Macron hoped that China would not provide lethal weapons to Russia, reiterating that this issue is crucial for EU-China relations. Previously, the United States and the EU criticized China for supplying dual-use materials and weapon components to Russia.

On April 26, Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently stated during his visit to Beijing that China is “helping fuel the biggest threat” to European security since the Cold War. He said that if China wishes to maintain friendly relations with Europe and other countries, it cannot simultaneously support the greatest threat to European security since the Cold War.

Mr. Du commented that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its threats to European security are red lines for the United States and Europe. However, he said that the CCP’s substantial purchases of Russian oil and support for Russia do not imply an absence of limits.

“Once the West responds firmly, the CCP will have to back down,” he said.

Xin Ning contributed to this report. 

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