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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Why China and Russia are closer than ever

Chinese President Xi Jinping during a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Monday.

By Nicole Hong

Xi Jinping, China’s leader, is meeting with President Vladimir Putin of Russia in Moscow this week in the most high-profile visit by any world leader to Russia since before the pandemic.

Coming more than a year after Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, the meeting will be watched closely by Western officials for any indications of how far China may be willing to go to act as a mediator in the conflict. Chinese officials have framed the meeting partly as a mission to promote constructive talks between Russia and Ukraine, even though U.S. officials have been skeptical of Xi’s recent efforts to become a global peacemaker.

Here are five things to know about the relationship between China and Russia:

Are China and Russia allies?

China and Russia are not formal allies, meaning they have not committed to defend each other with military support. But the two countries are close strategic partners, a relationship that deepened during the war in Ukraine as Russia became increasingly isolated from many other countries.

Chinese officials have said the current relationship is at a “historic high.”

The partnership is fueled by a shared goal of trying to weaken U.S. power and influence.

The relationship between China and Russia has not always been so warm. The two sides were fierce adversaries in the 1960s and clashed in 1969 over disputed territory along their border, raising fears at the time of a nuclear showdown between the two countries.

The two countries have also been competing for influence in Central Asia, a region the Kremlin has long seen as its turf but is becoming increasingly important to China’s geopolitical and economic ambitions. China is building more railroads, highways and energy pipelines in former Soviet republics such as Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, which still rely on Russia as a crucial security partner.

How close are Xi and Putin?

Right before the start of the Ukraine war in February 2022, Xi and Putin declared publicly that their countries’ relationship had “no limits.”

Xi has often described Putin as his best friend. During an economic forum in Russia in 2018, the two fried Russian pancakes and took vodka shots together. For Xi’s 66th birthday in 2019, Putin presented him with a cake and a giant box of ice cream.

In an article published in a Chinese newspaper Sunday, Putin said the two enjoyed the “warmest relationship,” noting that they have met about 40 times in recent years and always found time to talk at “no‑tie” events.

What is the economic relationship between Russia and China?

Economic ties between China and Russia have strengthened significantly since Russia’s first invasion of Ukraine in 2014, when it annexed Crimea. At the time, China helped Russia evade the sanctions imposed by the Obama administration that were supposed to cut off Russia’s access to global markets.

In the wake of harsher sanctions against Russia following the start of the Ukraine war last year, China has helped to supply many of the products that Russia previously purchased from Western-allied countries, including computer chips, smartphones and raw materials needed for military equipment.

Total trade between Russia and China surged last year.

What does Putin want from China?

Putin needs China to help bolster his economy, which has been battered by Western sanctions. For the Russian leader, China has increasingly become a lifeline for investment and trade. After Western countries restricted their purchases of Russian crude oil and natural gas last year, China helped offset the decline by buying more energy from Russia.

At the start of the Ukraine war, Russia asked China for military equipment and economic assistance, according to U.S. officials. U.S. officials have recently said that China is considering giving weapons to Russia for use in Ukraine, a claim that China has denied.

China has refrained from condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, even though China’s foreign policy is rooted around the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity. Although China has portrayed itself as a neutral party in the Ukraine war, it has endorsed Russian narratives, blaming the U.S. and NATO for starting the conflict.

But China has also hesitated to put its full backing behind Russia. The turmoil and instability stemming from the war could threaten China’s growth and complicate its efforts to strengthen its economic ties around the world.

Last September, after Putin and Xi met in person, Putin acknowledged that China had expressed “questions and concerns” about the war in Ukraine.

What does Xi want from Russia?

Xi wants Putin to join him as a like-minded ally in confronting U.S. and Western dominance.

In an article published in a Russian newspaper Monday before the visit, Xi said China and Russia needed to cooperate to overcome challenges to their security, including “damaging acts of hegemony, domination and bullying.”

Xi has pursued a harder stance against what he calls a U.S. effort to contain China’s rise, portraying China as a nation besieged — much as Putin has done in speeches to Russians. Xi has urged Chinese industries to reduce their reliance on Western technology and hailed China’s growth as proof that it does not need to adopt Western political values.

China has been buying more advanced weapons from Russia to modernize its military, and the two nations have increased their joint military exercises. Last year, as President Joe Biden was visiting Tokyo, China and Russia sent bombers over the seas in northeast Asia as a show of force.

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