Russia and China showcased their deepening ties Wednesday in a series of meetings closely watched for signs that Beijing might offer the Kremlin stronger support for its war in Ukraine.
The visit by Wang Yi, the Chinese Communist Party's most senior foreign policy official, to Moscow comes as the conflict in Ukraine continues to upend the global diplomatic order.
Relations between Russia and the West are at their lowest point since the Cold War, and ties between China and the U.S. are also under serious strain. Moscow suspended its participation in the last remaining nuclear arms control treaty with Washington this week. And the U.S. expressed concern in recent days that China could provide arms and ammunition to Russia.
Speaking at the start of talks with Wang, Russian President Vladimir Putin hailed ties between the two countries and added that the Kremlin expects Chinese President Xi Jinping to visit Russia.
The Russian leader noted escalating international tensions, adding that “in this context, cooperation between the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation on the global arena is particularly important for stabilizing the international situation.”
While Wang that “Chinese-Russian relations aren’t directed against any third countries and certainly can’t be subject to pressure from any third countries,” the specter of the war and the ways in which it has galvanized the West and deepened its divide with Russia hung over his meeting with Putin.
For instance, Wang emphasized that Moscow and Beijing both support “multipolarity and democratization of international relations” — a reference to their shared goal of countering the perceived U.S. dominance in global affairs.
Earlier Wednesday, Wang held talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. “Our ties have continued to develop dynamically, and despite high turbulence in the global arena, we have shown the readiness to speak in defense of each other’s interests,” Lavrov said.
Wang responded in kind, underlining Beijing's focus on deepening ties with Russia — a relationship it has said has “no limits.”
China has pointedly refused to criticize the invasion of Ukraine while echoing Moscow's claim that the U.S. and NATO were to blame for provoking the Kremlin . The government in Beijing also has blasted the sanctions imposed on Russia after it invaded Ukraine.
Russia, in turn, has staunchly supported China amid tensions with the U.S. over Taiwan.
The two nations have held a series of military drills that showcased their increasingly close defense ties. China, Russia and South Africa are holding naval drills in the Indian Ocean this week.
A Russian frigate, the Admiral Gorshkov, arrived in Cape Town in recent days sporting the letters Z and V on its sides, letters that mark Russian weapons on the front lines in Ukraine and are used as a patriotic symbol in Russia.
The rapprochement has worried the West. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said any Chinese involvement in the Kremlin’s war effort would be a “serious problem.”
Government-backed scholars in China shrugged off Washington's warnings over Beijing's relationship with Moscow as a reflection of what they described as a polarizing and distorted U.S. view.
The Global Times quoted Zhang Hong, associate research fellow at the Institute of Russian, Eastern European and Central Asian Studies of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, as saying the U.S. and its allies have looked at the Russia-Ukraine conflict through “colored glasses.”
“It seems like anyone who talks with Russia will be seen as siding with Moscow in Russia-Ukraine conflict,” the English-language Chinese newspaper quoted Zhang as saying.
Wang's talks with Lavrov followed his meeting Tuesday with Nikolai Patrushev, the powerful secretary of Russia’s National Security Council, who called for closer cooperation with Beijing to counter what he described as Western efforts to maintain dominance by thwarting an alliance between China and Russia.
While China recently has emphasized its close ties with Moscow, it also has to tread carefully to avoid an escalation of tensions with the West as it looks to stimulate its economy following the impact of the COVID-19 epidemic.
“Isolation from the West is not something (Beijing) wants to risk,” Yu Jie, senior research fellow for China in the Asia-Pacific program at Chatham House, a British think tank, said in comments published Wednesday. “President Xi and his colleagues have begun to realize that cooperation with Russia comes with substantial limits to avoid undermining China’s own political priorities and longer-term economic interests.”
Wang's trip to Moscow took place against a backdrop of grinding battles in Ukraine as neither side appeared to gain momentum, following weeks of virtual stalemate during the winter. Ukraine’s presidential office said at least seven civilians were killed between Tuesday and Wednesday mornings.
During a speech at a patriotic concert, Putin on Wednesday hailed Russia's “heroic” troops and claimed Moscow's forces were fighting for the country's “historic frontiers” to protect its “interests, people, culture, language and territory.”
“When we stand together we have no equals,” he shouted to enthusiastic crowds at a Moscow sports arena.
The growing relationship between China and Russia is another example of the ways the war could spread into perilous new terrain.
Putin’s announcement Tuesday that Russia would suspend its participation in the New START Treaty, raising new concerns about the fate of the arms pact, which was already on life support.
The move follows Moscow’s decision last fall to allow the resumption of U.S. inspections of its nuclear sites but also its refusal to hold a scheduled round of consultations under the pact.
The lower house of Russia’s parliament on Wednesday quickly endorsed Putin’s move to suspend the treaty, with officials and lawmakers casting it as an 11th-hour warning to Washington amid the tensions over Ukraine.
Reflecting Beijing's cautious stance, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said the treaty was key to peace and stability and said China hopes “the two sides will properly resolve their differences."