On March 22, 2013, Chinese leader Xi Jinping made his first foreign trip to Moscow to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin and highlight the growing importance of Beijing-Moscow ties and send a signal to Washington that a geopolitical counterweight to the West was being formed.
During that landmark visit, the leaders expressed admiration for one another, with Putin saying the two countries were forging a special relationship, while Xi added that the Russian leader was his “good friend” and that he and Putin shared a “similar personality.”
Ten years later, the fruits of that personal bond between the men at the top and the long-term quest by China to forge deeper ties with its northern neighbor will be on display as Xi heads to Moscow on March 20 for a three-day visit and his 40th face-to-face meeting with Putin.
Xi has tried to put distance between China and Russia in recent months, especially as Russian forces have faced setbacks on the battlefield in Ukraine. In a sign of a growing Chinese conviction to play a part in brokering peace, Xi is also ready to hold his first phone call since the war began with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, according to The Wall Street Journal. Kyiv has not confirmed that a call will take place, and the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry declined to comment when asked by RFE/RL.
But beyond China’s diplomatic tightrope and Xi’s desire to burnish his status as a global statesman, experts say the visit to Moscow reflects a doubling down by Xi in supporting Putin as part of a longstanding bet on Russia as a Chinese partner needed to push back against the United States in the superpower competition.
“Make no mistake,” wrote Alexander Gabuev, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “The trip will be about deepening ties to [Russia] that benefit Beijing, not about any real peace brokering.”
Xi’s Next Move
Despite concerns about Beijing’s strategic bond with Moscow, both American and European officials have cautiously encouraged Xi to open a line with Zelenskiy and engage more directly with Kyiv.
“That would be a good thing, because it would potentially bring more balance and perspective to the way that [Beijing] is approaching this,” U.S. national-security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters on March 13. “We hope it would continue to dissuade them from choosing to provide lethal assistance to Russia, which is obviously something that we have warned [them] about.”
While China-Russia ties have tightened considerably in the last decade, they intensified weeks before Moscow’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine with a joint declaration of a “no-limits” partnership that both Xi and Putin held up as a new era in their ties. China has not condemned the unprovoked invasion by Russian forces and has remained a vital political and economic lifeline for Moscow in the face of Western pressure — including dual-use trade — but has cautiously navigated the sanctions placed on Russia.
In late February, Beijing sought to showcase its mediation bona fides by calling for a cease-fire and peace talks to end the war with a 12-point proposal that called for an end to unilateral sanctions on Russia and appeared to warn Moscow against escalating the conflict with nuclear weapons. Moscow was receptive to the Chinese document, which was dismissed by most Western officials. Kyiv stated that it was a good sign, although Ukrainian officials noted that the proposal doesn’t mention a withdrawal of Russian troops from occupied territory.
“When Xi goes to Moscow, he will be in listening mode with Putin. If he is asked to open up a channel to Zelenskiy, I think Xi would be more than willing to take on that kind of role,” Dennis Wilder, a former director for China on the U.S. National Security Council, told RFE/RL. “On the other end, if Putin were to say to Xi that he can’t win without more support, I think Xi would feel compelled to help him.”
To Supply Or Not To Supply
Little is known about what will make up the content of the talks between Xi and Putin, but U.S. allegations that China is considering sending lethal military aid to Russia will hang over their meeting.
U.S. officials claim China is weighing shipments of ammunition and artillery to Russia, which could be particularly crucial as the war grinds into a second year with the front lines likely to be dominated by brutal artillery fights.
Beijing has accused the United States of “disinformation” over those claims and said Washington should stay out of its relationship with Russia. But Wilder, who is a research fellow at Georgetown University, says China is well-placed to supply Russia should it decide to do so.
China’s existing stockpile of old artillery and ammunition, some of which is Russian made, could be readily used and “covertly delivered” either through the two countries’ shared border or passing through a third party like North Korea, which has already supplied Moscow with weapons.
“It’s easy to remove factory markings from shells and replace them with another country’s, and it would be very hard for [the United States] to prove that the Chinese did something like that,” Wilder said.
Retrofitted civilian Chinese drones bought from commercial manufacturers have been a key part of the war effort for both Russian and Ukrainian forces, and some reports have also raised the prospect of China providing more advanced military drones as a form of aid. Wilder notes that, unlike drones, a prospective delivery of artillery has the advantage of providing Beijing with “plausible deniability” for any transfer.
But any form of support from China comes with its risks, says Devin Thorne, a senior analyst at Recorded Future, a private intelligence company.
While Beijing is eager to make sure that Moscow can endure the fallout from its stalled invasion, it’s also in the process of trying to mend ties with the European Union — one of its largest trading relationships. EU officials and European leaders have said military aid from China to Russia would be a “red line” and prompt a tough backlash that could jeopardize relations.
“[There] is a push [to] bring more European leaders to China, and Beijing still wants that improved relationship with Europe,” Thorne told RFE/RL, who concluded in a recent assessment that China was “unlikely” to supply Russia with lethal aid.
Watching From Kyiv
A direct conversation between Xi and Zelenskiy would be a notable progression for China’s diplomatic outreach and help Beijing’s credentials, which were boosted by a March 10 rapprochement deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia that was facilitated by China.
Xi and Zelenskiy last spoke a few weeks before Russia’s invasion, and the Ukrainian president has courted a phone call with Xi over the last year, something Beijing has not granted. Prior to the war, Beijing and Kyiv had a deepening relationship, with China as Ukraine’s top trade partner.
Yurii Poita, an expert on Ukraine-China relations at the Kyiv-based Center for Army, Conversion, and Disarmament Studies, says that Ukrainian expectations are low about any Chinese mediation and that the image of China from Ukrainian officials has soured in the last year.
Still, a virtual audience with Xi would be welcomed by Kyiv.
“A bad call is better than a good war, so this would be perceived by Kyiv as a type of diplomatic victory,” Poita told RFE/RL. “This call taking place could also be an indicator that China is less likely to provide Russia with more support or weapons.”