Vladimir Putin has told Xi Jinping that he understands China’s “questions and concerns” about the war in Ukraine, in a rare nod to tensions between the two states caused by the Russian invasion.
The remarks came as Xi and Putin met on Thursday for the first time since the war began, at a summit in Uzbekistan where the Russian president was expected to court the Chinese leader personally as an ally in his conflict with the west.
The two leaders exchanged warm words in their opening remarks, with Xi calling Putin an “old friend” and Putin thanking the Chinese leader for his “balanced” stance on the Ukraine invasion.
But it was Putin’s cryptic acknowledgment of Chinese “concerns” over the invasion that drew the most attention. In doing so, the Russian leader seemed especially keen to curry favour with Xi, striking a conciliatory tone on a topic where he is often volatile and uncompromising.
“We highly value the balanced position of our Chinese friends when it comes to the Ukraine crisis,” Putin said. “We understand your questions and concerns about this. During today’s meeting, we will of course explain our position.”
China’s concerns are probably headed by the economic fallout from the invasion, including Russian threats of an all-out energy war against Europe. While Putin and Xi had announced “no limits” in their partnership at a summit in February before the war began, China has avoided voicing public support for the invasion or of providing military or economic aid that could incur secondary sanctions.
As Russia faces setbacks on the battlefield and growing costs to its economy from sanctions, Putin may have sought to take advantage of the rare personal meeting to secure an economic and diplomatic lifeline. The sit-down was at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, Xi’s first international trip since the pandemic began.
Putin thanks Xi for China’s ‘balanced’ stance on Ukraine invasion – video
During the meeting, the two bonded over their mutual dislike of Washington, with Putin accusing the US of launching a “provocation” in the Taiwan strait. He reiterated support for the “one China” policy, which denies Taiwan’s sovereignty
Xi reciprocated, saying China was “willing to work with Russia to demonstrate the responsibility of big powers” and to “instil stability and positive energy in a world of chaos”.
Putin explicitly backed China over Taiwan, which Beijing claims is a Chinese province it will retake by force if necessary.
China held blockade-style military drills around Taiwan after the US House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, visited the island last month. Taiwan’s government strongly rejects China’s sovereignty claims.
“We intend to firmly adhere to the principle of ‘one China’,” Putin said. “We condemn provocations by the United States and their satellites in the Taiwan strait.”
Fifteen heads of state were expected to gather at the SCO summit, with much of the western media focus on Xi and Putin.
The pair announced a limitless partnership in February after meeting on the sidelines of the Beijing Winter Olympics. Just weeks later Russia invaded Ukraine. China’s government has struggled to balance its partnership with the global condemnation of Russia and the breadth of sanctions levelled against Moscow in response. It has at various times presented itself as a neutral party, even a potential mediator, but signs of support for Russia have grown clearer.
This week Li Zhanshu, China’s third highest-ranking official, met Russian lawmakers and told them China “fully understands and supports” Russia’s core interests and concerns. He explicitly blamed the US and Nato for the Ukraine conflict – a stance it has held since the early days of the invasion – but added that China understood and supported the fact that Russia “took the action that should be taken”, according to a translation by a China monitoring group, the Great Translation Movement.
Behind the close Xi-Putin relationship, however, analysts have said the summit would probably see them jostling for influence in central Asia. The Ukraine war and recent battlefield losses have weakened Russia’s position as a security guarantor in the region, they said, but it remained to be seen if China would step into the role.
A composite of Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping during their meeting on the sidelines of the SCO leaders’ summit in Samarkand. Photograph: Alexandr Demyanchuk/Sputnik/AFP/Getty Images
Rather, Xi would probably be seeking to take advantage of China’s rising power to build on trade routes through central Asia, future-proof the country against sanctions if it attacks Taiwan, and secure support in defending its policies in Xinjiang. China has been accused of crimes against humanity in the region, which borders Kazakhstan, but it denies wrongdoing.
“In historical terms, China has been at its strongest whenever the global trade system is land based, not sea based,” said Niva Yau, a senior researcher at the OSCE Academy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, prior to the summit. “Whenever we see that China has major issue with Taiwan, we see China pivoting to central Asia.”
Prior to the summit commencing, Xi travelled to Kazakhstan and met the president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, a key figure in Xi’s regional goals. On Thursday morning he also met Turkmenistan’s president, Serdar Berdimuhamedov, the Kyrgyz president, Sadyr Zhaparov, the Tajik president Emomali Rahmon, and he was greeted on arrival by the Uzbek president, Shavkat Mirziyoyev.
According to Chinese official readouts of the meetings, Xi frequently emphasised mutual national sovereignty and decrying “external interference” – an accusation Beijing often throws at western nations critical of China’s domestic or international behaviour.
The statements also noted a push for greater bilateral agreements on trade routes and infrastructure investments, including under the belt and road initiative launched by Xi in Kazakhstan in 2013, as well as resource deals.
Analysts said Kazakhstan was a key target in the region for China, with a relatively new president who came to power two years ago, after his predecessor ruled for almost three decades. The timing of the SCO summit and China’s need for central Asian influence left Kazakhstan in a “privileged position to bargain” with Beijing.
“In every single one of these deals with China they are getting more than what other countries would get,” said Yau.
An itinerary released by India’s delegation said its prime minister, Narendra Modi, would meet Putin, but Xi is not expected to meet Modi as the two governments struggle to negotiate bilateral disputes including the withdrawal of military troops from disputed border areas.