MOSCOW - China’s President Xi Jinping left Russia on Wednesday after a grandiose display of solidarity with President Vladimir Putin against the West that ended with the two autocrats pledging to work together to shape a new world order.
During his two-day visit, Mr Xi barely mentioned the Ukraine conflict and said on Tuesday in final remarks that China had an “impartial position”.
There was no sign that Mr Xi’s efforts to play the role of peacemaker had yielded results, nor did he make any offer of direct support for Mr Putin’s war in Ukraine.
Yet, as Mr Xi departed, he told Mr Putin: “Now there are changes that haven’t happened in 100 years. When we are together, we drive these changes.”
“I agree,” Mr Putin said, to which Mr Xi responded: “Take care of yourself, dear friend, please.”
Commenting on the Xi-Putin meeting, the White House said China’s position was not impartial and urged Beijing to pressure Russia to withdraw from Ukraine’s sovereign territory in order to end Europe’s biggest conflict since World War II.
Overnight, while Mr Xi was in Moscow, Russian forces launched a “massive air strike”, firing 21 Shahed-136 drones, the General Staff of Ukraine’s Armed Forces said on Wednesday.
As Mr Xi prepared to leave Moscow, air raid sirens blared across the Ukraine capital Kyiv and in Ukraine’s north and east, with reports of drone attacks, but no major destruction.
Heralded by the Kremlin as a show of support from its most powerful friend, Mr Xi’s visit to Moscow featured carefully staged pomp and ceremony, but the spectacle was also marked by plenty of demonstrative bonhomie between the two leaders.
As Mr Xi and Mr Putin ended their talks on Tuesday, the International Monetary Fund announced a preliminary agreement with Kyiv on a four-year loan package of about US$15.6 billion (S$20.9 billion) to the shattered country.
The money would help shore up Ukraine, which has suffered extensive damage to its infrastructure and economy during Russia’s year-long assault.
In remarks after his summit with Mr Xi, Mr Putin condemned British plans to send tank ammunition that contains depleted uranium to Ukraine, and warned of repercussions.
“If all this happens, Russian will have to respond accordingly, given that the West collectively is already beginning to use weapons with a nuclear component,” Mr Putin said, without elaborating.
Mr Xi and Mr Putin referred to each other as dear friends, promised economic cooperation, and described their countries’ relations as the best they have ever been.
“They (the leaders) shared the view that this relationship has gone far beyond the bilateral scope and acquired critical importance for the global landscape and the future of humanity,” said a statement released by China.
“We are working in solidarity on the formation of a more just and democratic multipolar world order, which should be based on the central role of the UN (United Nations), its Security Council, international law, the purposes and principles of the UN Charter,” Mr Putin said in a quote posted on the Kremlin’s website.
Yet, the lack of progress on any major energy deals – or specifics on other areas of economic cooperation – showed some hesitation from China on appearing too close to Russia.
Mr Xi wants to avoid facing more stringent economic sanctions that could damage China’s economy, while also keeping Russia on side as a partner that could push back against the United States and its allies – and provide cover for countries that do not want to pick sides.
Emphasising that China-Russia ties “are not the kind of military-political alliance during the Cold War”, one of the joint statements issued after the talks drew a more explicit boundary than a lengthy joint statement in 2022 that hailed a “no limits” friendship between both countries when Mr Putin visited Beijing just weeks before the invasion.
The extent to which China will continue this balancing act with Russia will be made clear in the coming weeks. Mr Xi is expected to soon hold his first conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky since the invasion, in order to further his vague proposal for a ceasefire, which has already been dismissed by the US and its allies.
A day earlier, Britain’s Minister of State for Defence Annabel Goldie said some of the ammunition for the Challenger 2 battle tanks that Britain is sending to Ukraine includes armour-piercing rounds which contain depleted uranium.
Separately, the US intends to speed up delivery to Ukraine of 31 Abrams battle tanks to autumn, Pentagon spokesman Brigadier-General Patrick Ryder told reporters.
Kyiv has clamoured for tanks as well as other sophisticated Western military hardware as the conflict has slowed to a war of attrition, with both sides suffering heavy losses.
The Pentagon said a decision to send a variant of the tank that can run on diesel fuel like most of the Ukrainian fleet made faster delivery possible.
President Zelensky once again implored Ukraine’s allies to provide more military aid, including ammunition, and to do it without delay.
“One of the questions which always commands the utmost attention is the supply of ammunition, support from our partners. We expect increased supplies of exactly what we need – and we need it right now,” he said in a video address on Tuesday.
European Union countries on Monday pledged to send one million artillery rounds over the next year to Ukraine, which has been burning through them faster than allies can supply them.
On the ground, bursts of incoming and outgoing artillery fire could be heard in the town of Chasiv Yar, just west of Bakhmut, a small eastern city that has been the focus of intense fighting for months.
The General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces said the fiercest fighting continued to take place near Bakhmut and Avdiivka to the south.
“Many of the provisions of the peace plan proposed by China are in line with Russian approaches and could be used as the basis for a resolution when Kyiv and the West are ready for it,” Mr Putin said on Tuesday in his most detailed comments yet on the blueprint, speaking in the Kremlin alongside Mr Xi.
An earlier joint statement included familiar accusations against the West – that Washington was undermining global stability and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation barging into the Asia-Pacific region – while also asserting that the close partnership between China and Russia did not constitute a “military-political alliance”.
On Ukraine, Mr Putin praised Mr Xi for a peace plan he proposed in February, and blamed Kyiv and the West for rejecting the proposal.
The West sees China’s peace plan as a ploy to buy Mr Putin time to regroup his forces and solidify his grip on occupied land.
China’s 12-point plan has no specific details on how to end the bloody year-long war, which has claimed tens of thousands of lives and forced millions to flee.
The West has sought to isolate Russia through global sanctions, and Mr Putin faces an arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court.
China has not supported any of the moves, and the West is concerned it may help arm Russia in the conflict, which Beijing has denied. REUTERS, BLOOMBERG