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China and Russia reaffirm ties as Moscow presses offensive in Ukraine

By EMILY WANG FUJIYAMA and HUIZHONG WU, EMILY WANG FUJIYAMA and HUIZHONG WU, Associated Press
Published: May 16, 2024, 8:18am

BEIJING (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin thanked Chinese leader Xi Jinping Thursday for China’s proposals on ending the war in Ukraine, which have been rejected by Ukraine and its Western supporters as largely following the Kremlin’s line.

At their summit, Putin and Xi reaffirmed a “no-limits” partnership that has grown deeper as both countries face deepening tensions with the West, and criticized U.S. military alliances in Asia and the Pacific region.

Putin’s two-day state visit to one of his strongest allies comes as his country’s forces are pressing an offensive in northeastern Ukraine’s Kharkiv region in the most significant border incursion since the full-scale invasion began on Feb. 24, 2022.

China claims to take a neutral position in the conflict, but it has backed Moscow’s contentions that Russia was provoked into attacking Ukraine by the West, and continues to supply Russia with key components that Moscow needs for its productions of weapons.

A joint statement after Putin and Xi met said that both sides believe that for “a sustainable settlement of the Ukrainian crisis, it is necessary to eliminate its root causes.”

Russia has said that the war was sparked not only by the threat posed to Russia by Ukraine and its backers but as necessary to wipe out alleged Nazism in Ukraine.

The Kremlin has repeatedly sought to link Ukraine’s leaders to Nazism, even though the country has a democratically elected Jewish president who lost relatives in the Holocaust, and despite the aim of many Ukrainians to strengthen the country’s democracy, reduce corruption and move closer to the West.

It wasn’t clear if the joint statement’s wording meant China was explicitly endorsing the Russian allegation of Nazi influence in Ukraine.

But the statement also noted that “The two sides pointed out that it is necessary to carry out education on the correct historical perspective, protect the world’s anti-fascist memorial facilities, and protect them from desecration or destruction, and severely condemn the glorification of or even attempts to revive Nazism and militarism.” That echoes Russia’s persistent contention that Western countries downplay the Red Army’s role in defeating Nazi Germany.

China proposed a broadly worded peace plan in 2023, calling for a cease-fire and for direct talks between Moscow and Kyiv. But the plan was rejected by both Ukraine and the West for failing to call for Russia to leave occupied parts of Ukraine.

The largely symbolic visit stressed partnership between two countries who both face challenges in their relationship with the U.S. and Europe.

“Both sides want to show that despite what is happening globally, despite the pressure that both sides are facing from the U.S., both sides are not about to turn their backs on each other anytime soon,” said Hoo Tiang Boon, a professor who researches Chinese foreign policy at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University.

While both leaders said they were seeking an end to the war in Ukraine, they offered no new proposals in their public remarks Thursday afternoon.

“China hopes for the early return of Europe to peace and stability and will continue to play a constructive role toward this,” Xi said, speaking alongside Putin.

His words were an echo of what China said last year when it first offered a broad plan for peace outlining general principles for ending the war in Ukraine.

Putin said he will inform the Chinese leader in detail about “the situation in Ukraine,” and said “we appreciate the initiative of our Chinese colleagues and friends to regulate the situation.” He added that the two planned to engage in further foreign policy discussions at an informal meeting later Thursday.

After Russia’s newest offensive in Ukraine last week, the war has entered a critical stage, as Ukraine’s depleted military waits for new supplies of anti-aircraft missiles and artillery shells from the United States after months of delay.

The joint statement from China and Russia also criticized U.S. foreign policy at length, hitting out at U.S.-formed alliances, which the statement called a “Cold War mentality.”

“Both sides expressed serious concern about the consequences caused to the strategic stability of the Asia-Pacific region by AUKUS,” according to the statement, referring to the acronym for Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States.

China and Russia also accused the U.S. of deploying land-based intermediate range missile systems in the Asia-Pacific under the pretext of joint exercises with allies. They said that the U.S. actions in Asia were “changing the balance of power”and “endangering the security of all countries in the region.”

Thursday’s meeting was yet another affirmation of the friendly “no limits” relationship they signed in 2022, just before Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Since then, Russia has become increasingly economically dependent on China as Western sanctions cut its access to much of the international trading system. China’s increased trade with Russia, totaling $240 billion last year, has helped the country mitigate some of the worst blowback from sanctions.

Moscow has diverted the bulk of its energy exports to China and relied on Chinese companies for importing high-tech components for Russian military industries to circumvent Western sanctions.

“I and President Putin agree, we should actively look for convergence points of the interests of both countries, to develop each’s advantages, and deepen integration of interests, realizing each others’ achievements,” Xi said.

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In their meeting, Xi congratulated Putin on his election to a fifth term in office and celebrated the 75th anniversary of diplomatic relations forged between the former Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China, which was established following a civil war in 1949. Putin faced no credible opposition in the presidential race, and, like Xi, hasn’t laid out any plans for any potential successors.

On the eve of the visit, Putin said in an interview with Chinese media that the Kremlin is prepared to negotiate over the conflict in Ukraine.

“We are open to a dialogue on Ukraine, but such negotiations must take into account the interests of all countries involved in the conflict, including ours,” Putin was quoted as saying by the official Xinhua News Agency.

Putin said a Chinese proposal made in 2023, which Ukraine and the West rejected, could “lay the groundwork for a political and diplomatic process that would take into account Russia’s security concerns and contribute to achieving a long-term and sustainable peace.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has said any negotiations must include a restoration of Ukraine’s territorial integrity, the withdrawal of Russian troops, the release of all prisoners, a tribunal for those responsible for the aggression and security guarantees for Ukraine.

Putin has blamed the West for the failure of negotiations in the opening weeks of the war, and praised China’s peace plan.

Russia-China military ties have also strengthened during the war in Ukraine. They have held a series of joint war games in recent years, including naval drills and patrols by long-range bombers over the Sea of Japan and the East China Sea. Russian and Chinese ground forces also have deployed to the other country’s territory for joint drills.

China remains a major market for Russian military, while also massively expanding its domestic defensive industries, including building aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines.

Putin has previously said that Russia has been sharing highly sensitive military technologies with China that helped significantly bolster its defense capability. In October 2019, he mentioned that Russia was helping China to develop an early warning system to spot ballistic missile launches — a system involving ground-based radar and satellites that only Russia and the U.S. possessed.

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