Xi departs Putin meeting, after signalling strength in Russia-China alliance

A White House spokesperson dismissed the ties as a "marriage of convenience."

March 22, 2023, 6:45 AM

HONG KONG and LONDON -- Chinese President Xi Jinping departed Moscow on Wednesday after two days of highly symbolic meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin, in which the two presented a united front and an alternative vision for global leadership.

Much of the summit seemed to be directed at countering narratives from the United States, NATO and other nations that have stood against Putin's invasion of neighboring Ukraine more than a year ago.

Despite statements saying that "China-Russia relations are not the kind of military-political alliance during the Cold War," China and Russia made clear they wanted to "advance the trend toward a multi-polar world."

"This highly publicized summit may reflect a shift towards a new and more active role for China, as it seizes the opportunity to convey diplomatic -- and possibly tangible -- support for Russia and any other state that wishes to defy the West," Michael Butler, associate professor of political science at Clark University, told ABC News.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping leave after a reception in honor of the Chinese leader's visit to Moscow, at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia March 21, 2023.
Grigory Sysoev/Kremlin/Sputnik via Reuters

Joint animosity towards the U.S.-led world order has kept Russia and China close despite Putin's war in Ukraine and western sanctions against Russia has made China their biggest customer and economic lifeline.

Russia became energy-hungry China's top oil supplier in January and February, supplanting Saudi Arabia. China's nationalist tabloid Global Times hailing energy a "ballast stone" in the two nations' trade relationship.

During their meetings, Putin committed to deliver at least 98 billion cubic meters of liquified gas annually to China by 2030 which is six times higher that they sold China last year but still below what Russia used to deliver to Europe.

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with China's President Xi Jinping at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 20, 2023.
Sergei Karpukhin/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images

Ahead of the summit, White House Spokesperson John Kirby dismissed the warming China-Russia ties as "marriage of convenience," but said it stands in stark contrast to Beijing's increasingly frosty relationship with Washington.

Beijing increasingly sees Russia as necessary ally as China and United States continue to fallout over numerous fronts not limited to Taiwan and access to semiconductors. It was further exasperated by the spy balloon episode earlier this year.

While Xi and China may not have voiced strong support the war in Ukraine, having the West's resources focused on the conflict may represent a net positive for Beijing, said Zev Faintuch, a senior intelligence analyst at Global Guardian, an international security firm.

"China also wants to keep Putin in power, as its current lopsided relationship is very beneficial, and weaken Russia's military to reduce the threat it poses to China," Faintuch told ABC News. "After all, they are nuclear-armed neighbors who have fought before."

Beijing had initially hoped that the spiraling tensions with the U.S. would abate in the wake of Xi's meeting with President Joe Biden in Bali last November, but as they continued to crater, Xi seems to have re-prioritized Russian relationship. He even aimed a rare direct slight at the United States earlier this month, blaming the Americans for "containment and suppression" as the reasons for China's economic challenges.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and China's President Xi Jinping arrive for a signing ceremony following their talks at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 21, 2023.
Grigory Sysoyev/SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images

Xi highlighted on numerous occasions over the two days of meetings that Russia and China are each other's largest neighbors and that their partnership is "consistent with historical logic and a strategic choice of China."

Through the Chinese State Media readouts of the meetings, Xi outlined an all-weather friendship that "will not be changed by any turn of events," "no matter how the international landscape may change," but stopped short of mentioning the "no limits friendship, with no forbidden areas" the two leaders touted last year just weeks before Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

In return for Xi's support since Putin invaded Ukraine, Xi was able to get Putin to reaffirm "Taiwan as an inalienable part of Chinese territory" and support for policies in Xinjiang and Hong Kong. Putin also fawned over China's Saudi-Iran deal calling it "historic," fully demonstrating "China's important status and positive influence as a major country in the world."

Xi arrived armed with his "12-point peace proposal" but questions remain how sincere China is about a resolution in Ukraine.

Ahead of the Moscow meetings, China had sought to position itself as a potential peacemaker, toeing the line in its support for Russia, said Arik Burakovsky, assistant director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at The Fletcher School at Tufts University.

"Xi has not imposed any conditions on Putin and largely shares his outlook on the conflict," Burakovsky said on Wednesday.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and China's President Xi Jinping enter a hall during a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 21, 2023.
Alexey Maishev/SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images

Chinese State Media were already working overtime to paint China, while not "a party in the crisis," as the responsible actor for proposing a peace plan. The United States, meanwhile, has been portrayed as an irresponsible instigator of conflict.

Just ahead of Xi's arrival in Moscow Monday, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin said in his near daily refrain, "It is the United States, not China, that is providing weapons to the Ukrainian battlefield."

"China has always upheld an objective and fair position on the Ukraine issue. All that China has done is to promote talks for peace."

Much of what was discussed in Moscow didn't appear to "suggest a major change in China's actual position relative to Russia or the war," said Butler, the professor at Clark University.

He added, "What it does reflect is China's penchant for challenging the U.S. and flouting the international norms the U.S. ostensibly supports."