BEIJING: Russian President Vladimir Putin arrives in China on Thursday to meet his “dear friend” Xi Jinping as he seeks to win greater support from Beijing for his war effort in Ukraine and his isolated economy.

It will be Putin’s first trip abroad since his March re-election and his second in just over six months to China, an economic lifeline for Russia after the West hit it with unprecedented sanctions over its military offensive in Ukraine.

Xi, who returned last week from a three-nation tour of Europe, has rebuffed Western criticism of Beijing’s ties with Moscow, enjoying cheap Russian energy imports and access to vast natural resources, including steady gas shipments via the Power of Siberia pipeline. It is a relationship the leaders described in 2022 as one of “no limits”.

“This is Putin’s first trip after his inauguration, and it is therefore intended to show that Sino-Russian relations are moving up another level,” independent Russian political analyst Konstantin Kalachev said. “Not to mention the visibly sincere personal friendship between the two leaders.”

But as the economic partnership comes under close scrutiny in the West, Chinese banks fearing US sanctions that might cut them off from the global financial system have begun turning the screws on Russian businesses.

The Kremlin this week said the two leaders would discuss their “comprehensive partnership and strategic cooperation” as well as “define key areas of development of Russian-Chinese cooperation and exchange views on international and regional issues”.

Putin, in an interview published in China’s Xinhua state news agency ahead of his two-day visit, also hailed Beijing’s “genuine desire” to help resolve the Ukraine crisis.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who met Xi in Beijing last month, warned China’s support for Russia’s “brutal war of aggression” in Ukraine had helped Russia ramp up production of rockets, drones and tanks — while stopping short of direct arms exports.

China claims to be a neutral party in the Ukraine conflict and the foreign ministry in Beijing said the two leaders will exchange views on “bilateral ties, cooperation in various fields, and international and regional issues of common interest”.

Trade between China and Russia has boomed since the Ukraine invasion and hit $240 billion in 2023, according to Chinese customs figures. But after Washington vowed to go after financial institutions that facilitate Moscow, Chinese exports to Russia dipped during March and April, down from a surge early in the year.

An executive order by President Joe Biden in December permits secondary sanctions on foreign banks that deal with Russia’s war machine, allowing the US Treasury to cut them out of the dollar-led global financial system.

That, coupled with recent efforts to rebuild fractured ties with the United States, may make Beijing reluctant to openly push more cooperation with Russia — despite what Moscow may want, analysts said.

Published in Dawn, May 16th, 2024

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