Lisa Haseldine Lisa Haseldine

Putin can’t hide how dependent he is on Beijing

Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping (Photo: Getty)

Vladimir Putin has arrived in China for a two-day state visit, the first since the start of his fifth term as president. The trip began in Beijing, where Putin met with Chinese premier Xi Jinping for the first of several talks.

There remained a distinct sense that once again Putin has come to Beijing with begging bowl in hand 

The meeting began with the effusive pleasantries that have become a standard part of any interaction between the two leaders. Putin called Xi a ‘dear friend’ once again and said he had chosen to make his first post-inauguration trip abroad to China to return a favour, after Xi travelled to Russia for the first trip of his new term in 2023. Though less gushing, Xi reciprocated, stating that Russia and China ‘firmly uphold the UN-centric international system, a world order based on international law’.

The Russian president also stated that ‘relations between Russia and China are not opportunistic and are not directed against anyone’. Who this particular statement was for is somewhat unclear, as China is as aware as the West, if not more so, of quite how heavily Moscow has come to rely on Beijing both economically and diplomatically since launching its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

The two leaders sat across from one another at a conference table with compulsory retinues in tow. This included, remarkably, the recently demoted former defence minister Sergei Shoigu to Putin’s left. Putin and Xi then used the meeting to rattle through a variety of topics at a top level. Relationships between Russian and Chinese banks will be strengthened to ‘protect’ mutual investments, and there will be further collaboration in the energy sector, namely on hydrocarbon and nuclear energy. Chinese scientists will travel to the town of Dubna, near Moscow to help complete the particle collider being built there. ‘Experiments and tests at this collider will make it possible to implement breakthrough mega-science projects, which in scale are beyond the capabilities of any country in the world alone,’ Putin said.

Inevitably, Xi raised the topic of Ukraine with Putin. At the press conference afterwards, Xi stated that ‘China and Russia perceive a political settlement as the right way to resolve the Ukrainian crisis.’ Repeating the points China set out in its peace plan for Ukraine at the beginning of 2023, Xi continued: ‘China’s position on this issue is consistent and clear. Namely, compliance with the norms and principles of the UN Charter, respect for state sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries, the formation of a new balanced, effective and sustainable security architecture.’ Putin in turn thanked his ‘Chinese friends’ for their efforts to resolve the Ukrainian ‘problem’.

The two signed a new joint statement on deepening the Russo-Chinese relationship to further deepen bilateral ties between the two countries and ‘confirm the leading role of Russia and China in the formation of a fair and democratic order’. And Putin made sure to congratulate the Chinese on the 75th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China, pointing out that ‘The Soviet Union was the first to recognise the new China.’

But despite all the efforts by the Russian delegation to pretend that the relationship between Russia and China remains a balanced one, there remained a distinct sense that once again Putin has come to Beijing with begging bowl in hand. 

Since the invasion of Ukraine, Beijing has come to be Russia’s largest foreign trading partner. By Putin’s own admission today, last year saw the value of trade between the two countries hit a new record – reportedly $240 billion. In an effort to keep its economy afloat, Moscow has been pushing cheap oil and discounted products on China for over two years now. Russian companies have also been encouraged to take on infrastructure projects in China. This arrangement has suited Beijing well, and it has so far felt compelled to offer little in return. 

One of the topics Putin will no doubt raise again over the course of this visit is the prospect of Chinese investment in Russian domestic infrastructure, namely the long-planned ‘Power of Siberia 2’ pipeline. Xi has dangled vague promises of China getting involved in the project for some time, but has yet to make any concrete commitments. There is little to suggest he will relent during this visit. 

As day turns to night in Beijing, Putin and Xi are due to attend a state dinner thrown for the Russian president, but not before the two sit down for a follow-up ‘tete-a-tete’ over tea. According to Russian state media, the pair will dine on Peking duck, shrimp dumplings and other Chinese traditional dishes. 

Tomorrow, Putin moves on to Harbin, the north-eastern city founded by Russian settlers in the early 1900s. There he will attend the Russo-Chinese trade fair – another exercise designed to show off the economic links between the two countries.

Putin might be hoping to convince Russians back home that Moscow and Beijing have an equally mutually beneficial relationship, but few outside the country are sold on this idea. While for now it suits China to indulge Putin’s seductive advances, Xi is firmly aware that he has the upper hand over his Russian counterpart, economically and diplomatically. When circumstances change, Beijing likely won’t hesitate to turn off the money taps and turf Moscow out into the cold.