When President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia meets with China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, during a visit to Beijing this week, both men will likely seek to demonstrate the strength of their “no limits” partnership in challenging the Western-dominated global order.
The visit comes at a time of turmoil in the Middle East after Hamas’s attack on Israel this month, which has led to Israeli airstrikes in Gaza and expectations of a ground invasion. Both Russia and China have refrained from following the lead of Western countries by condemning Hamas directly.
Instead, the two countries have called for an end to the violence and a revival of talks about a Palestinian state. China’s foreign minister this weekend accused Israel of going too far in its reprisals in Gaza, echoing an earlier denunciation by Egypt. And Mr. Putin urged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, during a phone call on Monday, to “avert a humanitarian catastrophe in the Gaza Strip.”
The Chinese and Russian alignment over the Israel-Hamas conflict reflects their geopolitical ambitions. Both countries have tried to cast themselves as leaders of the developing world, partly to bolster their standing with the oil-rich Arab world. They have also reinforced their own relationship over a common interest in eroding American global power.
Mr. Putin’s visit highlights Moscow’s dependence on China for support as his war in Ukraine, which has led to international sanctions on Russia, grinds toward a stalemate. Mr. Xi is Mr. Putin’s most important partner on the global stage and has provided the Russian leader with diplomatic cover and a financial lifeline after Western-led countries punished Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.
Mr. Putin arrived in Beijing on Tuesday to attend the Belt and Road Forum, a meeting about Mr. Xi’s signature foreign policy initiative aimed at using infrastructure projects to expand China’s influence abroad.
The trip is only Mr. Putin’s second outside Russia since the International Criminal Court issued a warrant for his arrest on suspicion of war crimes in March. Mr. Putin traveled to Kyrgyzstan last week to participate in a summit of former Soviet states. Last month, he skipped a gathering of the BRICS nations in South Africa and the Group of 20 summit in India.
In China, the Kremlin said, Mr. Putin will join Mr. Xi on Wednesday for meetings accompanied by ministers. The two men will also meet one-on-one.
Among Mr. Putin’s top priorities is the proposed Power of Siberia 2 gas pipeline, which would help redirect Russian gas supplies that had gone to Europe toward China instead. It is unclear how much Beijing supports the project, which requires constructing a pipeline through Mongolia.
Completing a deal is further complicated by the conflict between Israel and Hamas, which could have unpredictable effects on the Middle East and affect the global price of natural gas. “There are just too many uncertainties,” to figure out a pricing deal now, said Yan Qin, the lead energy analyst for the London Stock Exchange Group.
Trade between China and Russia has grown 30 percent in the first nine months of the year, and total business in 2023 is expected to break last year’s record of $190 billion. More than a third of all Russian oil exports now go to China, providing the Kremlin with a crucial source of war funding. The fighting appears to be settling into a prolonged war of attrition, with military experts saying that both sides face decreasing prospects of delivering a decisive blow that could bring about an end.
For China, the status quo suits its interests. The stabilization of the front lines in Ukraine means that Beijing does not need to dramatically intervene on Russia’s side to prevent a military defeat that could shake Mr. Putin’s grip on power. And the drawn-out, inconclusive war leaves Russia economically and diplomatically dependent on China and too distracted to counter Beijing in areas where their geopolitical interests overlap, such as Central Asia.
“China is not ready to throw Russia under the bus,” said Alexander Gabuev, director of the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center.
China, for its part, has stepped in to fill the gap left by Western companies in Russia’s consumer market. One of every two cars sold in Russia today, for example, comes from China. Before the war, Chinese car sales to Russia were negligible.
Though China remains the senior partner in the relationship, the weak recovery of China’s economy from the pandemic has somewhat improved Russia’s bargaining position since the two leaders last met, in Moscow in March, Mr. Gabuev said.
Mr. Xi and Mr. Putin declared a “no limits” partnership just weeks before Moscow’s invasion, to signal their alignment in opposing what they call U.S. hegemony. While that alignment still holds, China has had to hedge its relationship with Russia to manage its ties with important trading partners, such as the European Union.
China has tried to cast itself as neutral on the war, which has entered its 21st month. Earlier this year, Beijing issued a proposed political settlement to end the fighting, though the plan was criticized by Washington and some of its allies for protecting Russian interests.
Russia has also tried to demonstrate that it has autonomy in its relationship with China. Mr. Putin hosted North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, in Russia last month — a move seen as a hedge by Moscow against Beijing.
State-affiliated Chinese analysts argue that Beijing seeks to maintain an image of independence on the global stage. “It has become very clear that China does not want to stand on the same side completely with Russia on all issues,” said Xiao Bin, a researcher for the Institute of Russian, East European and Central Asian Studies at the state-run Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. “China has its own practical problems to solve.”
For China, the war in Ukraine has given it access to discounted Russian oil and diverted American resources — both financial and military — away from China’s periphery in Asia. But the war has also galvanized more global concern about Beijing’s aggressive claims over the de facto independent island of Taiwan. China’s support of Russia has also roiled its relations with Europe, a region Beijing had hoped to court to weaken trans-Atlantic unity on issues like trade and investment restrictions directed at China.
This week’s meeting between Mr. Xi and Mr. Putin comes as Beijing and Washington are working toward arresting a downward spiral in relations. But analysts say China’s long-term interests still favor close ties with Russia.
“The bromance is going strong, and in essence remains unaffected by the thaw in U.S.-China relations,” Yun Sun, director of the China program at the Stimson Center in Washington, said about Mr. Xi and Mr. Putin. “China clearly doesn’t believe in the sustainability of such a thaw, so Russia remains a key partner” in countering the United States.
Ms. Sun said China was currently focused on improving ties with the United States and may offer to help ease the Gaza crisis if it means gaining some leverage over Washington.
“On a strategic level, China is competing for influence in the Middle East,” she said. “But on a tactical level and in the short run, the Chinese would love it if the U.S. asked for help.”
Olivia Wang contributed reporting.