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The leaders of China and Russia have finished talks. Here are some takeaways

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands after speaking to the media during a signing ceremony following their talks in Moscow on Tuesday.
Mikhail Tereshchenko
/
Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP
Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands after speaking to the media during a signing ceremony following their talks in Moscow on Tuesday.

TAIPEI and MOSCOW — China's top leader Xi Jinping has wrapped up a state visit to Moscow, where he held nearly three full days of talks with Russia's President Vladimir Putin. The two men have a close relationship and have met 40 times now in the last decade.

This visit was an especially strong sign of support from China for Russia, coming just days after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Putin for alleged war crimes. Xi gave no indication he brought up the arrest warrant. Instead, the two men greeted each other warmly as "dear friend."

One big topic on the table: Putin's war in Ukraine. Here's what you need to know about the visit.

For Putin, the visit was a diplomatic boon in time of need

Putin has long been shunned by Western leaders over the invasion. And yet in meetings with Xi before cameras, the Chinese leader praised Putin's "strong leadership" — even encouraging Russians to reelect him in 2024. It was an awkward moment: Putin has remained coy about his future political plans.

"China's support has been critical for Russia in managing U.S., NATO and European Union reprisals and sanctions imposed in response to Russia's war in Ukraine," says Sharyl Cross, director of the Kozmetsky Center at St. Edward's University in Texas and a scholar of Sino-Russian relations.

"Consolidating and developing China-Russia relations is a strategic choice made by China based on its own fundamental interests," Chinese state media reported Xi as telling Putin on Monday.

Xi obliquely brushed off Western criticism of his growing ties with Putin: "It is China's strategic choice and will not change due to a temporary incident."

China and Russia's ties have benefited both countries economically, and bilateral trade surged in the last year. China now accounts for nearly a third of all Russian exports, and Russia recently became China's top oil supplier. Xi called forexpanding cooperation in sectors like energy and supply chains after his meeting with Putin.

With his country facing withering Western sanctions, the Russian leader has had little choice but to accept the Chinese offers, analysts say.

"China's domination of Russia is complete," Sam Greene, a Russia specialist at the Center for European Policy Analysis, argues in a Twitter thread.

Greene describes the outcome of the talks as "remarkable" because the deals were so "one-sided" — with Russia offering raw exports but seeing little Chinese investment to Russia in return.

"Putin tells his people he's fighting for Russia's sovereignty. In truth, he's mortgaged the Kremlin to Beijing," writes Greene.

A joint economic cooperation statement published after the visit stressed the two countries would seek to increase their use of "local currency," such as the Chinese yuan rather than the U.S. dollar, to settle cross-border trade, including for oil and gas.

The two countries are also increasingly ideologically aligned in their opposition to the U.S.-led world order.

"Xi Jinping seeks to assume a leading diplomatic role on the world stage and has been increasingly willing to join Moscow in challenging Western values and perspectives on international concerns," Cross says.

There was widespread skepticism of China's intentions

Xi arrived in Moscow touting his visit as a "peace mission" centered around a 12-point position paperaimed at ending the fighting in Ukraine.

Speaking to Xi in front of cameras at the start of discussions Monday, Putin said he had "carefully studied" the Chinese proposals, was "open to peace talks," and welcomed China's "constructive role."

Yet two days of talks yielded little more than lip service to the notion of a deal.

Putin said the Chinese plan dovetailed with Russian views and could form the "basis" of an eventual peace agreement — "when the West and Ukraine are ready."

Yet few countries in Eurasia and Europe have taken China and Russia's offer seriously. Left unspoken: Putin continues to insist that Kyiv recognize the "new geopolitical realities" of Ukrainian lands illegally annexed by Moscow, despite Russian forces not fully controlling the territories militarily.

Ukraine refuses this and insists Russian forces pull out: "The first and major point is the capitulation or withdrawal of the Russian occupation troops from territory in accordance with the norms of international law and the UN Charter," Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of Ukraine's National Security and Defense Council, wrote on Twitter this week.

China's position paper does not include provisions for returning Ukrainian territory seized by Russia.

The closer ties between China and Russia have also alarmed former Soviet states in Central Asia.

"I think Central Asian countries see that this plan is unrealistic, and it cannot be anyhow implemented," says Temur Umarov, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Kyrgyzstan.

And for all the fanfare around his peace efforts, Xi kept up a political balancing act in which he neither condemned Russian actions nor provided Putin military support.

Meanwhile, China's regional neighbor, Japan, has thrown its support behind Ukraine. While Xi was in Moscow, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida made a surprise trip to Kyiv and met with Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskyy.

Xi's visit was an attempt for China and Russia to contain diplomatic fallout over Russia's invasion of Ukraine

The two countries have tried to portray their talks as routine international diplomacy andcollectively hit back at Western criticism of their political systems, saying they "oppose the hypocritical narrative of the so-called 'democracy against authoritarianism.' "

"I think there's a bit of damage control going on now," says Thomas Christensen, an international affairs professor and director of the China and the World Program at Columbia University.

"After Beijing offered its so-called peace proposal, it made sense for him to go and discuss it with Putin, because he can try to project, particularly to the developing world and to some European capitals, that China is a constructive force, that China is not simply fully siding with Russia but is trying to create peace."

China's support has also provided Russia protection from Western pressure — with Xi fully embracing Putin's framing of the Ukraine conflict as part of a larger effort by the West to contain rival powers and prevent what Putin calls a historical shift toward a "multipolar" world.

A telling moment came as Xi bid farewell to Putin following a state dinner at the Kremlin Tuesday.

"Right now there are changes the likes of which we haven't seen for 100 years," Xi told Putin. "And we are the ones driving these changes together."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Emily Feng
Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.
Charles Maynes