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What to Know About the Summit Between Putin and Xi in China

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China’s backing will be crucial to President Vladimir V. Putin as he intensifies his offensive in Ukraine. But his host, Xi Jinping, has other competing priorities.

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Xi Jinping greeted President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia in a show of solidarity at the start of a two-day state visit.CreditCredit…Sergei Guneyev/Sputnik

David Pierson
Published May 15, 2024Updated May 16, 2024, 12:51 a.m. ET

When China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, hosts President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia this week, the two leaders are expected to present a united front. But they have different agendas.

Mr. Putin is trying to escalate his war in Ukraine before Ukrainian forces can receive a replenishment of arms from the United States, and probably wants to know he can rely on China. Mr. Xi will seek to bolster his strategic partner and “old friend,” but he is also under pressure to avoid further alienating the West over his support for Russia.

Those priorities are the backdrop of Mr. Putin’s two-day state visit, which began in Beijing on Thursday and will include a trip to the northeastern city of Harbin, where a China-Russia trade fair is being held.

Mr. Putin will most likely seek more help from Beijing, which has provided a lifeline to the Kremlin ever since Western sanctions were imposed on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine more than two years ago. China purchases huge quantities of Russian oil and provides technologies that help Moscow withstand its economic isolation and sustain its war machine.

Mr. Xi considers Russia an important counterweight in China’s rivalry with the United States, but he risks alienating Europe, a key trading partner, at a time when China is relying on exports to revive its sluggish economy.

Here is what to know about the summit.

The visit is Mr. Putin’s first foreign trip since winning his fifth presidential election in March. Mr. Xi showed the same respect to Mr. Putin when he made Russia his first foreign trip after securing his norm-shattering third term as China’s president in March 2023.

Mr. Xi has met with Mr. Putin over 40 times, including virtually, which is more than any other leader. The two men have cast their relationship as deeply personal by exchanging birthday greetings and referring to each other as “old” and “dear” friends.

In Mr. Putin, Mr. Xi sees a like-minded autocratic leader who blames the United States for holding back his country’s rise. The two leaders declared a “no limits” partnership weeks before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, in 2022, to push back against what they consider American hegemony.

ImageXi Jinping and Vladimir Putin hold up wine glasses and look at each other as they prepare to toast. Behind them is a Russian mural.

In a photograph provided by Russian state media, Mr. Xi and Mr. Putin toasted during a dinner at the Kremlin in Moscow in 2023.Credit…Pavel Byrkin/Sputnik

Mr. Xi and Mr. Putin also view themselves as architects of a new world order free of U.S. interference. The two leaders have promoted multilateral groupings of developing countries like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and BRICS, so named because it includes Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, as a way to counterbalance the West.

Mr. Xi and Mr. Putin will most likely try to project strength and solidarity during their summit to demonstrate to other countries that there is an alternative to the U.S.-led global system.

“Russia-China relations have reached an all-time high, and even in the face of severe international situations, relations between the two countries continue to strengthen,” Mr. Putin said in an interview with Chinese state media published on Wednesday.

China has vowed not to provide lethal weapons to Russia, but the United States and Western analysts say China has been aiding Russia with satellite intelligence and fighter jet parts as well as supplying components with both civilian and military uses, such as microchips, machine tools, optical devices, electronic sensors and telecommunications gear.

Mr. Putin will most likely want any such supply of parts and equipment to continue, to help sustain his military’s advances as he intensifies the war effort.

Russian forces opened a new line of attack in recent days near Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city. Ukraine’s forces are stretched thin and running short on weapons, but billions of dollars’ worth of arms from the United States are expected to trickle in soon.

Mr. Putin is also expected to seek more trade and business deals and is traveling with a large delegation. Included are five deputy prime ministers; the heads of Rosatom, Russia’s nuclear power company, and Roscosmos, Russia’s space agency; as well as Sergey V. Lavrov, the foreign minister; Maksim Reshetnikov, the economy minister; and Andrei R. Belousov, an economist who was named the new defense minister this week.

“The people involved reflect the priorities of both sides,” said Elizabeth Wishnick, a senior research scientist at the Center for Naval Analyses in Virginia who studies Chinese foreign policy.

Mr. Belousov has experience working with China, having previously been co-chair of the Intergovernmental Russian-Chinese Commission on Investment Cooperation, which was founded in 2014 to promote more trade between the two countries.

And among the deputy prime ministers traveling with Mr. Putin is Alexander Novak, a key official for Russian oil and gas, including the development of the Power of Siberia 2 natural gas pipeline. Mr. Putin has long sought to cement an agreement on the project, which would redirect Russian gas supplies that had gone to Europe toward China instead.

It is unclear whether Mr. Xi is interested in the pipeline. Analysts say the Chinese leader could be reluctant because it would travel through a third country, Mongolia, and that it could expose China to potential secondary sanctions and leave it even more reliant on Russia for energy.

Mr. Xi has tried to align with Russia and steady ties with the West at the same time to help his ailing economy, an approach that some call a strategic straddle.

China casts itself as neutral on the war in Ukraine and as a proponent of peace. It has offered a vague, 12-point plan for a political settlement of the war and sent an envoy to conduct shuttle diplomacy in Europe.

Western countries have dismissed China’s efforts because they do not call for a withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine. China also sides with Russia by blaming the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization for creating the tensions that led to Moscow’s invasion.

Mr. Xi’s refusal to condemn the Kremlin’s war has ultimately worsened China’s relations with the West, and it has led to Europe’s growing alignment with the United States on security issues. This makes China’s efforts to head off a trade war with the European Union — over exports of Chinese electric vehicles and market access for European companies — harder for Mr. Xi.

President Biden with Mr. Xi during a meeting in California in November, when the two struck a tentative détente. Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

Tensions are also rising with the United States, testing a tentative détente struck by President Biden and Mr. Xi in November. The Biden administration on Tuesday announced a sharp increase in tariffs on an array of Chinese imports, including electric vehicles, solar cells, semiconductors and advanced batteries.

During a visit to Beijing last month, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken warned that the United States would blacklist Chinese banks aiding Russia’s war effort. Russian media reported earlier in the year that Chinese financial institutions had already begun scaling back transactions with Russian firms over concerns about secondary sanctions. Analysts say the change most likely contributed to the drop in year-on-year trade between Russia and China in March, the first such decline since January 2021, according to Chinese customs data.

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