Chinese president Xi Jinping will pay a state visit to Russian president Vladimir Putin on Monday in a move that will reaffirm the leaders’ strong ties despite western condemnation of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.
China’s foreign ministry said Xi and Putin would have “in-depth exchanges on bilateral relations and important international and regional issues of mutual concern” during the three-day visit, Xi’s first trip to Russia since the war began in February last year.
China has presented itself as a potential mediator in the Ukraine conflict, a claim viewed with scepticism in Europe and the US because of Xi and Putin’s close relationship, sealed just before the hostilities erupted when the pair declared a “no limits” partnership.
Over the past year, Xi has maintained regular contact with Putin while Chinese state media have parroted Russian propaganda on the war, describing the situation as a “crisis” rather than an invasion.
The Chinese leader has not spoken to Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy since the war began. But one person in Beijing familiar with the matter said Xi might also conduct a video conference with the Ukrainian president in the coming days.
China has yet to confirm such a plan but Beijing has stepped up ministerial-level contact with Ukraine in recent weeks. On Thursday, China’s foreign minister Qin Gang spoke to his Ukrainian counterpart Dmytro Kuleba to call for peace talks.
“China upholds a fair and objective position in Ukraine and plays a constructive role in promoting talks for peace,” China’s foreign ministry said on Friday.
While China gave no further details on the agenda of the Russia state visit, the Kremlin said Putin and Xi would discuss “issues of developing relations of all-encompassing partnership and strategic interaction between Russia and China”.
They would also engage in an “exchange of views in the context of deepening Russia-China co-operation in the international arena” and sign “a number of important bilateral documents”, it said. It did not give details on the documents.
Putin and Xi would meet one-on-one on Monday, followed by an informal lunch, said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov. The key China-Russia talks will be held on Tuesday.
Analysts said Beijing would use any call between Xi and Zelenskyy to try to support its claims that it was genuinely interested in a role as a possible peacemaker in the conflict.
China could point to its mediation of a deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran last week to restore diplomatic ties as evidence of its recent success as a negotiator. Analysts believe, however, that resolving the Ukraine conflict will prove far more complex for Beijing, which the west views as aligned with Moscow.
“I think it’s getting harder and harder for China to convince the world that it’s somehow this neutral player in Ukraine. So a trip by Xi Jinping to Moscow to see Putin at this time just on its own would again not be a great look for China,” said Paul Haenle of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who was a China adviser to US presidents George W Bush and Barack Obama.
But he said if Xi then called Zelenskyy, he could sell the trip to Moscow as talking to both sides in the interest of securing a peace deal.
The Biden administration warned on Friday that there was potential for “one-sided” Russian-Chinese proposals on the war.
National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said: “We also hope that President Xi will reach out to President Zelenskyy directly because we continue to believe that it is very important he hears from the Ukrainian side as well.
“As they begin to plan out their agenda, we certainly want to express how concerned we would be by any proposals by [China] that would be one-sided and reflect the Russian perspective,” he said.
China’s 12-point peace plan released last month, which includes a ceasefire, was “effectively the ratification of Russian conquest,” Kirby said.
This would allow Russian troops to continue to occupy Ukrainian territory, he added, and “to use a ceasefire to only further entrench their positions in Ukraine, to rebuild, refit and refresh their forces”. “We do not believe this is a step towards a just and durable peace,” Kirby said.
The US warned China last month against what it said were plans in Beijing to supply Russia with weapons for the war effort in Ukraine. But Kirby said on Friday that “we still have seen no indication that the Chinese government has made a decision to move ahead with providing Russia with lethal weapons”.
In June last year, China North Industries Corporation, a major state-owned defence contractor, sent 1,000 “civilian long-range hunting rifles” to Techcrim, a Russian arms manufacturer, according to customs data collected by Import Genius, a trade data aggregator. Politico first reported on the shipment.
Kirby said that sale was part of “pre-existing and long standing business transactions between Chinese companies and Russia”, and that the US had no specific information that the rifles were intended for use on the battlefield.
Additional reporting by Maiqi Ding in Beijing and Polina Ivanova in Berlin
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