(Bloomberg) -- In the almost 1,000 days since Xi Jinping last ventured abroad, China has found itself increasingly isolated within the US-led world order. He’s finally reemerging this week alongside Russia’s Vladimir Putin to showcase his vision for a viable alternative.
Xi and Putin on Thursday will hold their first in-person meeting since Russia invaded Ukraine, according to the Kremlin, in a sign that Beijing sees the relationship as crucial to countering the US. It will occur on the sidelines of a Chinese-founded security forum in Uzbekistan that gathers countries ranging from India to Iran -- a grouping that aims to accelerate the formation of a multipolar world.
Prior to that, Xi on Wednesday will stop in Kazakhstan, where he unveiled what would become his signature Belt-and-Road trade-and-infrastructure plan nine years ago. That foreign-policy initiative has since become a focal point of the US and its allies in the Group of Seven, which in June announced plans to raise $600 billion in financing so lower-income countries have an alternative to Chinese cash.
Both stops will reinforce Xi’s vision of a world where China can expand its interests without fearing the threat of economic or military pressure from the US. The Chinese leader will expound on that agenda at a twice-a-decade party congress next month, during which he’s expected to secure a third term as leader of the world’s second-biggest economy.
“Xi Jinping is trying to reorient global affairs in a direction that de-centers Western institutions and promotes groupings and institutions that are more favorable to China’s interests and worldview,” said Trey McArver, co-founder of research firm Trivium China. Xi’s meeting with Putin, he added, “sends a very clear signal that China continues to tilt toward the side of Russia in that conflict.”
The stakes are rising for both Xi and Putin, who declared a “no limits” friendship just weeks before Russia invaded Ukraine in February. In recent days, Putin has seen Ukraine push back Russian forces and retake large swathes of land, while Xi has been under pressure to adopt stronger measures to prevent Taiwan from boosting relations with the US and its allies.
China has so far avoided doing anything that would make it subject to US sanctions or help Russia win the war, even as Beijing provides Putin with diplomatic support and increases trade with its northern neighbor. China’s interest in helping Russia appears more geared toward rebutting US moves that could also one day be used against Beijing.
In an article published in a Kazakh newspaper, Xi said the two countries should “jointly push for an international order that is more just and more equitable.” Top Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi used similar language in a meeting earlier this week with outgoing Russian Ambassador Andrey Denisov.
“China has not stepped up to supply Russia with weapons or advanced electronics during the war,” said Iikka Korhonen, head of research at Bank of Finland Institute for Economies in Transition. “They are mindful of not violating these actions, at least not in an obvious way, so there are limits about what these so-called allies are prepared to do.”
Moscow has sought to trumpet China’s support for the war. Last week it released statements citing Li Zhanshu, China’s No. 3 official, telling Russian lawmakers that Beijing’s leaders “fully understand the necessity of all the measures taken by Russia aimed at protecting its key interests, we are providing our assistance.”
Russia and China will step up efforts to counter NATO’s expansion and the US-led campaign to keep the two nations in check, Li also said, according to the TASS news agency. “We will battle together their hegemony and the policy of force,” it cited him as saying. The comments weren’t reported by China’s Foreign Ministry or state media.
Putin last week attacked US-led democracies at an economic forum in the Russian port city of Vladivostok, whose participants included Myanmar’s sanctioned coup leader and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. “Western countries are seeking to preserve yesterday’s world order that benefits them and force everyone to live according to the infamous ‘rules,’ which they concocted themselves,” Putin said.
Similar sentiments are likely to be expressed at the meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. The group, set to meet Sept. 15 and 16 in the southeastern Uzbek city of Samarkand, accounts for 42% of the world’s population and 25% of global gross domestic product.
An appearance by Xi at the forum will reinforce the idea of an alternative to US power that includes Western-aligned powers like India and Turkey, according to Raffaello Pantucci, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. India has moved closer to the US in recent years, most notably through the Quad grouping that also includes Australia and Japan.
Although the SCO is more symbolism than substance, economic ties within the group are crucial. As inflation surges around the globe, Russia is a source of cheap energy for members such as India.
China’s trade ties with Moscow have expanded despite the US sanctions since the war: Russia’s exports to China jumped nearly 50% to $40.8 billion in the first five months of the year, IMF data show. That includes big increases in oil and gas.
Putin aims to use talks with Xi to expand trade further with China and to obtain more industrial and technological imports to fill the hole left by the absence of Western goods because of sanctions, said Vasily Kashin, an expert on Russia-China ties at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics. Chinese exports of cars, televisions and smartphones have all helped Russia fill a void as foreign brands flee.
China sourced almost 40% of its coal imports from Russia this year as authorities reckoned with a domestic energy crisis, up from about 30% during the same period last year, according to customs data. China has also snatched up Russian liquefied-natural-gas shipments at a hefty discount as most other importers shun the fuel. LNG deliveries in August surged to the highest level in about two years, according to ship-tracking data.
Politically, the visits to Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan also allow Xi a comfortable environment to return to the international stage ahead of the Group of 20 summit in Bali in November. Xi is prioritizing engagement with “friends and partners” rather than allowing the G-20 meeting to be his first overseas visit since the Covid lockdown, according to Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at SOAS University of London.
“China and Xi can effectively set the agenda for this visit, something they cannot be certain of for a G20 summit,” he said. “Engaging with the US and the West is not seen as equal in importance.”
(Updates with Xi’s comments in eighth paragraph.)
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