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As Putin meets with Xi, China is forced to consider how far it will go to help a friend

While China and Russia have close economic ties and a shared desire to challenge the West, the relationship is being put to the test as the U.S. dials up the pressure on countries that are helping Russia get around sanctions.

Vladimir Putin will be accompanied by a large entourage on his 2-day state visit to Beijing

Two men in business suits and ties grip hands and look at the camera in front of flags.

As Vladimir Putin and his large entourage touch down Thursday in Beijing for a two-day state visit, there were be plenty of public overtures about cooperation, but with China facing increasing pressure from the U.S. over its trade relationship with Russia, China's President Xi Jinping will have to figure out how far the country is willing to go to prop up what was once described as a "no-limits" partnership.

Putin's visit is his first foreign trip since he was inaugurated for his fifth presidential term earlier this month.

It comes after two separate trips to China in April by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, who have repeatedly warned Beijing there would be repercussions for shipping technology to Russia that it could use to rebuild its battlefield stocks.

"I think that the most important practical elements of this visit will be the underwater part of the iceberg," said Alexander Gabuev, the director of the Berlin-based Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center.

"A large part of the agenda for Putin is to find these safe ways around sanctions that will enable a stream of critical components for the Russian military machine."

With Russia restricted from U.S. and European markets, China has become an even larger trading partner and political ally for the Kremlin. While both countries are united by their close economic ties and desire to challenge the West, the relationship is being put to the test as the U.S. dials up the pressure on countries that are helping Russia get around sanctions.

A man in a long coat is shown walking in front of guards.

U.S. sanctioned Chinese companies over Russian trade

According to Chinese customs data, trade between Russia and China surged by more than 26 per cent in 2023, totalling more than $240 billion US. China sold a range of goods including cars and electronics to Russia, while buying up billions of dollars in Russian oil and gas.

But observers note that trade between the two countries has dropped significantly this year and was down 15 per cent in March over the same period in 2023.

This is seen as a likely consequence of repeated warnings from Washington, which has threatened to block foreign banks from accessing the U.S. financial system if they are found to be processing transactions that aid Russia's military industrial base.

"Chinese banks are really apprehensive of the risk. They see Russia as somewhat toxic," said Gabuev in an interview with CBC News on Tuesday from London.

"They introduce additional procedures to make sure that they are not doing any military-related payments."

Two presidents in business suits look at each other and smile.

At the beginning of May, the US sanctioned 20 companies in China and Hong Kong including one which it accused of providing Russia with the parts it needs to produce drones.

On Wednesday during a visit to Kyiv, Blinken vowed that the U.S. would keep imposing sanctions on Chinese businesses that are helping to back Russia's war.

He said while China hasn't provided Russia with weapons, the U.S. was "deeply concerned" about the support it had given to the country's defence industry.

Chinese officials have previously spoken out against what it calls "illegal unilateral sanctions" by the U.S., with a spokesperson for China's embassy in Washington saying that the government oversees the export of dual-use goods in accordance with laws and regulations.

Dual-use goods include technology like semiconductors and microchips that could be used in consumer products, but also by the military

While Gabuev believes the amount of Chinese exports to Russia could continue to drop over the next several months, he believes that both Moscow and Beijing will set out to find workarounds and this will be a key part of this week's discussions.

End of 'no limits' partnership?

During the official visit, Putin will be be accompanied by a large delegation that includes his new defence minister, Andrei Belousov.

The appointment of Belousov, an economist, is widely seen as a move to help ensure that the Russian economy is better positioned to serve the needs of the military for the long term.

A man in a suit sits at a large wooden table near another man in a military uniform.

Russia's Finance Minister Anton Siluanov and the governor of the Central Bank, Elvira Nabiullina will also be part of the official visit.

The agenda also includes a trip to the northeastern city of Harbin where Putin will help open a China/Russia trade exhibition featuring 1,400 businesses.

This is Putin's second trip to China since he launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022.

A few weeks before he ordered tens of thousands of troops to roll into Ukraine, Putin was hosted by Xi during the opening of the Beijing Winter Olympics.

A man in a dark coat stands along near a red backdrop looking down over a stadium.

A joint statement issued at the time spoke about a "no-limits" partnership, but according to Yu Jie, a senior research fellow on China in the Asia-Pacific Programme at Chatham House, that steadfast language has faded.

"In the beginning of the war, you would hear the Chinese policymakers and senior diplomats talk about relationships having no limit," said Yu in a phone interview with CBC News from Brussels.

But over the past two years, she says "Beijing has quietly dropped that term."

"Instead Beijing is trying to frame China-Russia relations as being normal country-to-country relations."

China trying to improve relations with Europe

Putin's visit comes a few days after Xi wrapped up a brief European tour, where he visited France, along with Hungary and Serbia- two nations which have not only forged closer ties with China, but also with Russia.

The trip was Xi's first visit to the continent in five years and Yu believes part of a deliberate effort to try to improve relations with Europe, at a time when China is facing criticism from the West over its ties to Russia.

Prior to that, Xi met with Olaf Scholz during the German Chancellor's visit to Beijing. After the visit, Scholz said he asked Xi to pressure Putin to stop the war.

"I think China is in a very tricky moment," said Yu.

"On the one hand it wants the [Ukraine] war to end quickly for the sake of its own ties with Europe, but on the other hand, it doesn't want Russia to lose too badly."

Besides their economic relationship, China and Russia are united in their efforts to try to push back against what they see as U.S. dominance of global affairs and economic markets.

In speeches both leaders routinely reference the need for a multi-polar world and believe the U.S. is trying to contain them and stifle their global rise.

Two men in suits are shown seated in chairs in an ornately decorated room.

Beijing as a potential peace broker

In an interview published Wednesday by China's Xinhua news agency, Putin praised China for its "balanced" position on Ukraine, adding that Beijing truly understands the "root causes" of the crisis.

China unveiled a 12-point peace plan more than a year ago, which included several vague wishes, and few specifics.

The plan called for peace talks and respect for national sovereignty, but didn't call on Russia to withdraw from Ukraine.

The U. S. criticized the plan and China for trying to present itself as a peacemaker without condemning Russia's invasion.

WATCH | Xi tries to position China as peacemaker in Ukraine war:

Xi Jinping portrays himself as peacemaker as Moscow talks wrap up

1 year ago

Duration 2:27

Chinese President Xi Jinping said he’s committed to the peace proposal for the war in Ukraine as talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin wrapped up in Moscow. But experts say China’s proposal may have more to do with pushing back against the U.S.

Ukraine invited China to peace summit which will be hosted by Switzerland in June, but Beijing hasn't confirmed its attendance, and has said the talks would be unproductive if Russia isn't invited to participate.

"China was never part of the game to try and diplomatically isolate Russia," said Gabuev, who adds that Beijing's special envoy to Eurasian Affairs, Ambassador Li Hui, has been able to visit Moscow, Kyiv and other western capitals.

Those connections automatically give it some leverage, which Gabuev believes China is likely trying to capitalize on in discussions with the U.S. and Europe.

"If you, the West, want us to play a more constructive role, show us your carrots," said Gabuev, illustrating China's perspective.

"Why should we do more than we are actually doing in order to help your aims?"


Briar Stewart

Foreign correspondent

Briar Stewart is CBC's Russia correspondent, currently based in London. During her nearly two decades with CBC, she has reported across Canada and internationally. She can be reached at briar.stewart@cbc.ca or on X @briarstewart

    Credit belongs to : www.cbc.ca

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