SAMARKAND, Uzbekistan - Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday said he understood that Mr Xi Jinping had questions and concern about the situation in Ukraine, but praised China’s leader for what he said was a “balanced” position on the conflict.
Russia’s war in Ukraine has killed tens of thousands of people and pushed the global economy into uncharted waters with soaring prices for food and energy amid the biggest confrontation between Moscow and the West since the Cold War.
“We understand your questions and concern about this. During today’s meeting, we will of course explain our position.”
Mr Putin’s first remarks about Chinese concern over the war come just days after a lightning rout of his forces in north-eastern Ukraine.
Mr Xi, whom the Communist Party is due next month to bestow a historic third leadership term and thus cement his place as the country’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong, did not mention Ukraine in his public remarks.
China has refrained from condemning Russia’s operation against Ukraine or calling it an “invasion” in line with the Kremlin, which casts the war as “a special military operation”.
Still, Beijing is perturbed by the impact on the global economy and has been careful not to give material support to Russia that could trigger Western sanctions on China’s own economy.
The Xi-Putin partnership is considered one of the most significant developments in geopolitics after China’s own spectacular rise over the past 40 years.
Mr Xi, the son of a Communist revolutionary who has praised the jewels of Russian literature in public, and Mr Putin, who grew up in Leningrad, now St Petersburg, and came of age in the Soviet-era KGB, said they would work together.
But the Ukraine war has underscored the different trajectories of China and Russia: one a rising superpower whose economy is forecast to overtake the US in a decade; the other, a former superpower struggling with a draining war.
Once the leader in the global Communist hierarchy, Russia after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union is now a junior partner to a resurgent China which already leads in some 21st century technologies such as artificial intelligence, regenerative medicine and conductive polymers.
“In the face of changes in the world, in our times and of history, China is willing to work with Russia to play a leading role in demonstrating the responsibility of major powers, and to instil stability and positive energy into a world in turmoil,” Mr Xi told Mr Putin.
While Mr Xi has now met Mr Putin in person 39 times since becoming China’s President in 2013, he has yet to meet Mr Joe Biden in person since the latter became US President in 2021.
Mr Xi’s trip to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan was his first outside China since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. His last trip outside China was a visit to Myanmar in January 2020.
Though Russia and China have in the past been rivals and have fought wars, Mr Putin and Mr Xi share a view of the world that sees the West as decadent and in decline just as China challenges the US’ supremacy.
Mr Putin explicitly backed China over Taiwan.
“We intend to firmly adhere to the principle of ‘One China’,” Mr Putin said. “We condemn provocations by the United States and their satellites in the Taiwan Strait.”
China regards self-ruled Taiwan as a renegade province awaiting reunification with the mainland, by force if necessary. Taiwan’s government rejects China’s sovereignty claims and says it will defend its freedoms and democracy.
As the West tries to reduce its reliance on Russian energy, Mr Putin is seeking to boost energy exports to China and Asia, possibly with a pipeline through Mongolia. Mr Putin, Mr Xi and Mongolian President Ukhnaa Khurelsukh are due to hold a three-way meeting in Samarkand. REUTERS