Xi Jinping is likely to visit Moscow in the coming weeks to coincide with the first anniversary of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Vladimir Putin extended an invitation to his Chinese counterpart during a videoconference conversation at the end of December. "We are waiting for you, dear Mr. President, dear friend, we are waiting for you next spring on a state visit to Moscow," he said at the time. The Russian Foreign Ministry now assumes that the Chinese leader will parade through the Kremlin corridors in February, state news agency TASS reports.
If confirmed, it would be Xi Jinping's first official visit to Russia in four years. The Chinese president visited the country for the last time in 2019, as part of the St Petersburg International Economic Forum. However, he has maintained close contact with Putin throughout this time. They met in September at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation leaders' summit in the Uzbek city of Samarkand, and shared impressions in a video call at the end of the year.
The Russian Foreign Ministry's announcement coincides with the information published last week by the Moscow daily Vedomosti. The pro-government newspaper claimed that the head of Chinese diplomacy, Wang Yi, would visit Russia at the beginning of February, probably to pave the way for Xi and prepare for the trip. The former Foreign Minister, relieved of his post by Qin Gang in December, became the head of the Office of the Communist Party's Central Foreign Affairs Commission, a post from which he serves as Xi's chief foreign policy adviser.
"This year, Russia and China will join efforts to further enhance and promote bilateral relations between the two governments. As you know, Putin has invited Xi for an official visit this spring. We proceed from the understanding that it will be the central event on the bilateral agenda for 2023," the Foreign Ministry stressed in the statement. For the Kremlin, securing China's support is a crucial issue.
China has not confirmed the information. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning said at a press briefing on Monday that she was "not aware" of Wang Yi's visit. But she added that the two "are partners in comprehensive strategic cooperation and maintain close contacts at all levels", something that was confirmed in December with Dmitry Medvedev's visit to Beijing. The current deputy chairman of the Russian Federation's Security Council, who briefly served as president when Putin reached the maximum term of office, met with Xi Jinping in his capacity as chairman of Putin's United Russia party.
"Historically, China-Russia relations have been plagued by mistrust and confrontation. In the late 1960s, at the height of the Cold War, the two countries came close to a nuclear war. More recently, however, Beijing and Moscow have found common cause. China's industrial machine imports Russian oil, gas, coal and other raw materials in exchange for Chinese high-tech products," notes analyst Michael Schuman in The Atlantic.
Russia is China's largest supplier of oil, second-largest supplier of pipeline gas and fourth-largest supplier of liquefied natural gas. As a result of Western sanctions against Moscow, China has also become the largest buyer of Russian energy. In return, the Asian giant has emerged as Russia's largest source of imports, particularly of semiconductors, a material that the Kremlin needs to manufacture civilian and military equipment. This explains why bilateral trade increased by more than 30% in 2022, reaching record levels.
The Kremlin wants to take relations with Beijing to a new level to form a common front against the West. "In cooperation with our counterparts, we have been taking consistent steps to fight US attempts to achieve global dominance by promoting the concept of a rules-based order," summed up the Russian Foreign Ministry, which says it sees China as "a friendly nation in the current circumstances".
"China could play the same role for Russia as the United States is playing for Ukraine. If that were to happen, the chances of a Russian victory would increase exponentially. But that hasn't happened, suggesting that, in practice, there are strong limits to the 'boundless' friendship that Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping proclaimed just weeks before Russia's invasion of Ukraine on 24 February," notes historian Max Boot in The Washington Post.
Twenty days before Putin decided to launch the invasion, the Russian president and Xi Jinping signed a joint statement in Beijing assuring that in their bilateral cooperation there are "no limits" and "no no-go zones", something that has proven false over the past 11 months. Beijing has claimed that Putin did not clarify his intentions in Ukraine in his meeting with Xi, but Western countries continue to have doubts about China's real position.
China has so far played an ambiguous role in Ukraine. It has not condemned the invasion, but neither has it unreservedly supported Russia. "China's position on the Ukraine issue is clear and consistent. We will continue to work actively to persuade peace and promote talks to push the situation to de-escalate and cool down," the Foreign Ministry spokeswoman told a press briefing.
Xi said Beijing would "continue to maintain an objective and fair stance, work to unite the international community and play a constructive role in the peaceful resolution of the Ukrainian crisis". The road, he added, would not be easy, "but as long as efforts are unrelenting, the prospect of peace will always exist". Some analysts sense that China can act as a moderator; others argue that Xi's real interest lies in dissuading Putin from using nuclear weapons in Ukraine.
China wants to move closer to Europe politically, which contextualises the visits of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and European Council President Charles Michel in November, to be followed early this year by French President Emmanuel Macron and Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni. There is some rapprochement with European countries, but at the same time, China is not interested in a collapsed Russia, because then it would not be a useful ally in the future.
The Russian Foreign Ministry's announcement coincides with the first visit to China by US State Department Secretary Antony Blinken. The head of US diplomacy will meet later this week in Beijing with the newly appointed Qin Gang to defuse the tensions that have marked their bilateral relations in recent months and also to exchange views on the situation in Ukraine. High on the agenda, however, is the question of Taiwan.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said Monday when asked about Blinken's trip that Beijing "is willing to communicate and cooperate with the United States at bilateral and multilateral levels on the basis of mutual respect, equality and reciprocity", but qualified that Washington "cannot interfere in internal affairs and harm China's interests while wishing to communicate and talk about cooperation". "On issues such as Ukraine and the nuclear issue on the Korean peninsula, China has always been committed to political solutions and to persuading and promoting peace talks, and opposes words and actions that 'add fuel to the fire' and escalate conflicts," Mao said.