Russian President Vladimir Putin to visit China in May as Moscow seeks to bolster ties with Beijing

Russian President Vladimir Putin plans to visit China in May, he announced, revealing his decision as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken visits Beijing this week and is set to press Chinese officials to halt exports of machine tools and other goods useful to Moscow in its war with Ukraine.

The news marks the latest indication that Russia and China’s “partnership without limits”, touted weeks before Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022 and reinforced since then through policy and public statements, shows no sign of abating.

“A visit in May is planned,” Putin stated at a Moscow business forum on Thursday without elaborating. The Russian leader, in power since 2000, visited China most recently in October last year.

Ahead of Putin’s visit, the US is likely to reiterate its concern about the trajectory of Sino-Russian relations.

In a phone call in early April, US President Joe Biden warned his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping about his government’s ongoing support for Russia, according to a White House read-out.

The sentiment has been echoed by US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and other top Biden administration officials.

Blinken this week is expected to reinforce Washington’s concern when he meets with Foreign Minister Wang Yi and possibly sits down with Xi.

Even as Beijing has stopped short of supplying military equipment to Russia, wary of secondary sanctions by the US, Europe, Britain and others, it has backed its authoritarian neighbour in different ways.

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These include diplomatically at the UN; economically, by buying Russian oil and supplying non-military and dual-use goods; and rhetorically with supportive messaging about the perceived benefits of authoritarian rule.

Western leaders have viewed the China-Russia dynamic with mounting alarm as the two boost their military cooperation and exercises as well as expand their influence in the Global South.

Russia has become increasingly dependent on China economically amid unprecedented Western sanctions over its military offensive. And US officials have said more Chinese goods like drone and missile technology, satellite imagery equipment, heavy trucks and machine tools are being shipped, fortifying Russia’s military industrial base.

In the meantime, China has benefited from inexpensive Russian energy imports and depressed natural resource prices, reportedly including steady gas shipments sent through the Russia East-Route Natural Gas pipeline.

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US Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrives in Beijing on Thursday. Photo: Xinhua via EPA-EFE

All this has led to Beijing walking a delicate line, with Western countries threatening to sanction Chinese banks and companies over their trade with Russia.

Mainland lenders Ping An Bank and Bank of Ningbo stopped accepting payments in Chinese yuan from Russia, Russia’s Izvestia newspaper reported in March. In response, the Kremlin blamed the West for heaping “unprecedented pressure” on Chinese firms.

In addition to discussing sensitive bilateral issues – including Taiwan, the South China Sea and Western worries that China is flooding foreign markets with subsidised goods to export its way out of its economic problems – Blinken hopes to enhance people-to-people ties and defuse tensions with China, officials said before his trip this week.

What is more, Sino-American ties have hit a new snag, as the US Congress this week passed a law requiring that the popular social media app TikTok, owned by Chinese company ByteDance, either put itself up for sale or pull out of the stateside market amid alleged national-security concerns.

US-China relations: Blinken hits out at ‘non-market practices’

Blinken’s trip to Shanghai and Beijing is expected to run through Saturday.

Beijing has balked at condemning Moscow’s Ukraine offensive, despite pressure from other capitals to do so, instead calling for peace on all sides and offering itself as a potential mediator.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov earlier this month said Beijing’s peace plan was the most reasonable offered by any nation to date. Critics have called it “vague”.

“It is a reasonable plan that the great Chinese civilisation has put forward for discussion,” Lavrov said.

The timing of Putin’s trip – hinted at a month ago – is likely driven by Russia, rather than any desire by Beijing to use Moscow as a counterweight to recent US pressure, according to Robert Ross, a political-science professor at Boston College.

US lawmakers eye ‘full sanctions’ for Chinese military firms helping Russia

Sidelined on the global diplomatic stage, battling Western sanctions and bracing for a protracted war, the Russian leader is keen to signal to the world that he has China’s backing and is not isolated, said Ross.

“The relationship is very much one in which the Russians need Chinese more than the Chinese need the Russians,” he said. “The Chinese are under no illusion that these summit meetings are going to help them negotiate, help their bargaining leverage, against Washington.”

The size and significance of the dual-use exports the Biden administration officials are warning against are unclear, Ross added, noting the White House may have an interest in fanning the narrative of significant risk.

That was because Washington is keen to strengthen European resolve and unanimity in blocking semiconductors and other hi-tech exports to Beijing, he said.

“There’s always a persistent trend and ongoing storyline of what China’s doing against Western interests,” said Ross, who is also affiliated with Harvard University. “Timing is everything on these announcements. We have to be somewhat cautious before we assign significant importance to Chinese transfers.”

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