At a time of increasing animosity with the West, Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin met in person for the first time since the start of the Ukraine war to showcase their strong ties.
The two authoritarian leaders gathered on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Uzbekistan's ancient Silk Road city of Samarkand in a show meant to signal deeper coordination and unity between the two countries and reaffirm their relationship amid major battlefield setbacks for Moscow in its nearly seven-month war in Ukraine, which has seen China walk a cautious but supportive line for the Kremlin.
Putin hinted at their September 15 meeting that Beijing may not be satisfied with Moscow's invasion of Ukraine, saying he understood that Xi had "questions and concerns" but praised the Chinese leader for what he called a "balanced" position on the war.
"We highly value the balanced stance of our Chinese friends when it comes to the Ukraine crisis," Putin said during the meeting. "We understand your questions and concerns about this. During today's meeting, we will of course explain our position."
Amid their discussion, Xi referred to Putin as an "old friend," and Putin offered a full-throated endorsement of Beijing's positions over Taiwan and its One China policy that recognizes the self-governing island as part of mainland China. A readout of their conversation showed that Xi did not mention Ukraine or NATO in the talks.
This marks the first meeting between Putin and Xi since February in Beijing just days before Russia's invasion of Ukraine, when they signed a joint statement declaring the partnership between the two countries had "no limits."
Despite different tones, the leaders were eager to voice their opposition to the United States and what Putin deemed a "unipolar" world order led by the United States that Beijing and Moscow both sought to move against.
"We are ready," Xi said, according to a Kremlin readout, "together with our Russian colleagues, to set an example of a responsible world power and play a leading role in bringing such a rapidly changing world onto a trajectory of sustainable and positive development."
But while Xi and Putin displayed a deepening of ties, the path forward amid a grinding war in Ukraine, global economic shocks, and an altered geopolitical landscape across Eurasia is far from straightforward.
A Symbolic Meeting
Set up in 2001, the SCO consisted of China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan before expanding in 2017 to include India and Pakistan. The summit offers a symbolic venue for the leaders as they look to deepen their partnership and voice opposition to the West.
Xi is also looking to highlight his power abroad after strengthening his control in the lead-up to an important Chinese Communist Party congress next month where he is expected to receive a third term as leader.
"The reason for this meeting at the end of the day is very different for each side, but it's ultimately about optics," Raffaello Pantucci, a senior fellow at London's Royal United Services Institute, told RFE/RL. "Putin wants to show the West that he isn't isolated and still has friends in Asia. For Xi, it's about showing that he is a key powerbroker and just as respected as a leader around the world as he is at home."
Throughout the war, Beijing has refrained from condemning Russia's invasion and offered a diplomatic lifeline to Moscow. Chinese oil companies have also been a top buyer of discounted Russian energy and other raw materials. Beijing also has kept up its military links with Russia, taking part in large-scale war games in the Far East earlier this month.
Both Beijing and Moscow view the SCO as a vehicle to oppose Western-led institutions and offer what officials from both countries have framed as an alternative world order. China also appears eager to respond to the United States following an August visit to Taiwan by U.S. House of Representatives speaker Nancy Pelosi, which Beijing said was "provocative."
According to The Wall Street Journal, the decision to use part of Xi's first trip abroad in nearly three years to meet with Putin was partly a reaction to Pelosi's visit.
"Both leaders are attracted to the idea of building a non-Western international order," said Pantucci. "The SCO is in many ways a flimsy institution, but this shows how they can engage more with it and other institutions like it to offer an alternative path."
Still, Beijing has taken a pragmatic approach and has shown that despite its declaration of a "no-limits" dynamic with Russia, China does appear to have its red lines.
China has so far complied with sanctions against Russia over Ukraine, with some Chinese companies even cutting ties with Moscow to avoid violating the measures and damaging its access to Western markets.
Despite the meeting in Samarkand, China has not signaled any deviation from this line that it has followed since Russian tanks first rolled into Ukraine in late February.
Xi's Balancing Act
All eyes were on Xi and Putin at the SCO, but their tete-a-tete was far from the only meeting on the sidelines of the summit. The diplomatic gathering, along with Xi's Central Asian tour this week, represents a long-term Chinese foreign policy strategy.
While Xi in many respects doubled down on China's relationship with Russia while in Uzbekistan, the Chinese leader is performing a difficult balancing act for his Eurasian diplomacy while attending the SCO.
China has invested heavily over the years in its relations with countries in Central Asia and Beijing is looking to further cultivate those ties while at the SCO, having already signed a slew of trade and investment pacts with countries in the region.
Amid the fallout from the war, Central Asian countries -- Kazakhstan, in particular -- have also become uncomfortable with Moscow's invasion of Ukraine and growing pressure from the Kremlin.
Beijing has tried to show a sensitivity to these anxieties, with Xi beginning his regional trip on September 14 in Nur-Sultan where he met with his counterpart, Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev, and said China "will continue to resolutely support Kazakhstan in protecting its independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity."
"On the one hand, China will provide diplomatic support for Russia and broad commitments to a Beijing-Moscow entente whose principal rationale and focus is to counterbalance Washington," Evan Feigenbaum, vice president at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state, wrote recently.
"On the other [hand], China will continue de facto compliance with Western sanctions to avoid painting a target on its own back, and it will deploy mealy-mouthed language about 'peace' and 'stability' aimed at placating the Central Asian nations and partners in the 'global south' that are uneasy about Moscow's war in Ukraine," he added.
Neither explicitly an economic or military bloc, the SCO was originally envisaged as a forum through which China and Russia could manage their shared authority over Eurasia and improve relations with their neighbors.
But the Ukraine war has thrown that strategy off balance.
The aftermath of the invasion has seen Russia's economy shrink, its relations with neighbors damaged, and its influence weakened while Moscow has become increasingly dependent on China both economically and politically.
During their meeting in Samarkand, Putin appeared deferential to Xi by praising the Chinese leader, saying he respects his "balanced stance" on the war in Ukraine, backing Beijing's One China policy, and opposing "provocations" by the United States in the Taiwan Strait.
For years, analysts have warned that relations between Beijing and Moscow could become increasingly unbalanced in China's favor, leading to Russia becoming a junior partner in any future dynamic.
"There's no doubt that the power balance has shifted between them. Things used to be much more equal between [Xi and Putin]," said Pantucci. "This is a trend that's been under way for some time and this meeting is further affirmation of it."
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