In a show of unity, Chinese President Xi Jinping and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin have met in Beijing as Moscow’s deteriorating relations with the West take centre stage ahead of the official opening of the Winter Olympics in the Chinese capital.
During his visit on Friday, Putin hailed his country’s close bond with China at a time of growing tensions with the West over Ukraine and other issues.
Russia’s ties with China are of an “unprecedented nature and an example of a dignified relationship”, he said in televised remarks. On his side, Xi said that the meeting will inject more vitality into China-Russia relations, according to a report from Chinese state media.
Alongside the Ukraine crisis, the two leaders also discussed business. Putin said Russia has prepared a new deal to increase gas exports to China to 48 billion cubic metres (bcm) a year via a new pipeline that will deliver 10 bcm annually from its Far East region. Putin also said he wants to increase trade between the two superpowers to a volume of $200bn, up from the $140bn it had reached in 2021.
China has become more vocal in backing Russia in its dispute with NATO powers over Ukraine.
However, Al Jazeera’s Katrina Yu said this “does not necessarily mean that China would welcome any potential attack on Ukraine”, citing the Chinese government’s good relations with Kyiv, an important trading partner that is also part of the Belt and Road infrastructure initiative.
“Certainly, Xi right now, heading into the Winter Olympics, doesn’t want anything to disrupt stability,” she added, noting, however, that discussions on Ukraine are expected to be high on the agenda of the two leaders’ talks on Friday.
“They really have been trying to convey a united front – both leaders have experienced souring relations with the US and its allies over the recent years,” Yu said, reporting from Beijing. “And China has signalled that it would support Russia economically should the US impose any sort of crippling sanctions.”
Moscow is looking for support after its deployment of 100,000 soldiers near its border with Ukraine prompted Western nations to warn of an invasion and threaten “severe consequences” in response to any Russian attack.
Last week, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi called Russia’s security concerns “legitimate”, saying they should be “taken seriously and addressed”.
On Thursday, Wang held face-to-face talks with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, in Beijing before Xi and Putin’s meeting.
Wang was quoted by the state-owned China Daily as saying that Beijing is ready to work with Moscow “to deepen the time-honoured friendship and comprehensive strategic coordination between the two countries”.
For Xi, the meeting was his first face-to-face talks with a world leader in nearly two years.
The Chinese president has not left the country since January 2020, when it was grappling with its initial COVID-19 outbreak.
He is now due to meet more than 20 leaders as Beijing kicks off a Winter Olympics it hopes will be a soft-power triumph and shift focus away from a build-up blighted by a diplomatic boycott and coronavirus fears. Putin was the first foreign leader to confirm his presence at Friday’s opening ceremony.
The two leaders will then attend the Olympic opening ceremony on Friday evening.
Putin already hailed Russia’s “model” relations with Beijing in a December phone call with Xi, calling his Chinese counterpart a “dear friend”.
China’s state-run Xinhua news agency carried an article from Putin on Thursday in which the Russian leader painted a portrait of two neighbours with increasingly shared global goals.
“Foreign policy coordination between Russia and China is based on close and coinciding approaches to solving global and regional issues,” Putin wrote.
He also hit out at the US-led Western diplomatic boycotts of the Beijing Olympics that were sparked by China’s human rights record.
“Sadly, attempts by a number of countries to politicise sports for their selfish interests have recently intensified,” Putin wrote, calling such moves “fundamentally wrong”.
China enjoyed plentiful support from the Soviet Union – the precursor to the modern Russian state – after the establishment of Communist rule in 1949, but the two socialist powers later fell out over ideological differences.
Relations got back on track as the Cold War ended in the 1990s, and the pair have pursued a strategic partnership in recent years that has seen them work closely on trade, military and geopolitical issues.
Those bonds have strengthened further during the Xi Jinping era at a time when Russia and China find themselves increasingly at odds with Western powers.