Russian President Vladimir Putin is set to meet his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping in Beijing this week, in a visit that will put a spotlight on the deep energy ties between the two countries.
Putin will attend the Belt and Road Forum in the Chinese capital between October 17 and 18. On Sunday, the Russian president said he saw the BRI as China’s “desire for cooperation”.
Putin’s trip comes at a crucial time for China’s Xi, who is also likely to meet with US President Joe Biden next month.
The United States has warned China against supplying Putin with weapons as Russia, a $2 trillion economy, battles Ukrainian forces backed by Washington and the European Union.
Alexander Gabuev, director of the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center, said the optics of the Ukraine war made big public deals between China and Russia unlikely right now.
“Putin is definitely guest of honour,” Gabuev said, adding that military and nuclear cooperation would be discussed.
“At the same time I think China is not interested in signing any additional deals at least in public, because anything that can be portrayed as providing additional cash flow to Putin’s war chest and Putin’s war machine is not good at this point.”
China and Russia declared a “no limits” partnership in February 2022 when Putin visited Beijing just days before he sent tens of thousands of troops into Ukraine.
Beijing has, meanwhile, rejected Western criticism of its growing partnership with Moscow in light of the Ukraine war, insisting their ties do not flout international norms. China has also asserted it has the prerogative to collaborate with whichever country it chooses.
Spotlight on energy cooperation
Since the start of the Ukrainian conflict, Russia, a leading global oil producer, has cemented its energy ties with China, the world’s second-biggest oil consumer after the US.
Russia exports around two million barrels of oil per day to China, accounting for more than a third of its total crude oil exports. China is Russia’s second-largest buyer of Russian oil after India.
The heads of Russian energy giants Gazprom and Rosneft, Alexei Miller and Igor Sechin, will join Putin’s retinue during his visit to China, sources familiar with the plans have told Reuters.
Russia also wants to secure a deal to sell more natural gas to China and plans to build the Power of Siberia-2 pipeline, which would traverse Mongolia and have an annual capacity of 50 billion cubic metres (bcm).
It is unclear if the gas deal – particularly the price and the cost of building it – will be agreed.
View this post on Instagram
Defence ties also in tow
For China, Russia is a not only a major source of oil and gas: the world’s biggest nuclear power is also a rich potential source of technology as the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) seeks to modernise its conventional and nuclear forces by 2035.
Russian aviation, rocket and even submarine technology has been shared over recent decades with China, according to a 2022 assessment by the US Department of Defence.
China and Russia closely cooperate on civilian nuclear plants – some of which could be used to produce military grade plutonium, such as the fast breeder rectors at Xiapu.
But how any military cooperation between the two will unfold remains to be seen amid uncertainty over the fate of Chinese Defence Minister Li Shangfu, who has not been seen in public for more than six weeks.
General Liu Zhenli, the head of the military body responsible for China’s combat operations and planning, has emerged as the top contender for Li’s job.
China watchers will be looking at who takes the lead in any talks with Russian military officials on cooperation.
‘No limits’ partnership
In keeping with Putin and Xi’s ‘no limits’ partnership last year, bilateral trade between Russia and China has soared 30% in the first half of this year.
Bilateral trade between the two was valued at $21.18 billion last month — the highest since February 2022 when Russia started its military operation in Ukraine.
Last month, Chinese Commerce Minister Wang Wentao said China-Russian economic and trade cooperation had deepened and become more “solid” under the “strategic guidance” of their two leaders.
On a visit to China earlier this month, Russian Economy Minister Maxim Reshetnikov said bilateral trade between the two will rise to more than $200 billion in 2023.
Xi, who leads a $18 trillion economy, will need to balance close personal ties with Putin with the reality of dealing with the $27 trillion economy of the United States – still the world’s strongest military power, and the richest.
Putin and Xi share a broad world view, which sees the West as decadent and in decline just as China challenges US supremacy in everything from quantum computing and synthetic biology to espionage and hard military power.
“Over the past decade, Xi has built with Putin’s Russia the most consequential undeclared alliance in the world,” Graham Allison, professor at Harvard University and a former assistant secretary of defence under Bill Clinton.
“The US will have to come to grips with the inconvenient fact that a rapidly rising systemic rival and a revanchist one-dimensional superpower with the largest nuclear arsenal in the world are tightly aligned in opposing the USA.”
Biden has referred to Xi as a “dictator” and has said Putin is a “killer” and a leader who cannot remain in power. Beijing and Moscow have scolded Biden for those remarks.
- Reuters, with additional editing by Vishakha Saxena