Putin focuses on trade, cultural exchanges in China

BEIJING — Russian President Vladimir Putin focused on trade and cultural exchanges Friday during his state visit to China that started with bonhomie in Beijing and a meeting with Chinese leader Xi Jinping that deepened their “no limits” partnership as both countries face rising tensions with the West.

Putin praised China at a China-Russia Expo in the northeastern city of Harbin, hailing the growth in bilateral trade. He will also meet with students at Harbin Institute of Technology later Friday. Harbin, capital of China’s Heilongjiang province, was once home to many Russian expatriates and retains some of those historical ties in its architecture, such as the central Saint Sophia Cathedral, a former Russian Orthodox church.

Though Putin’s visit is more symbolic and is short on concrete proposals, the two countries nonetheless are sending a clear message.

“At this moment, they’re reminding the West that they can be defiant when they want to,” said Joseph Torigian, a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institute.

At the exhibition in Harbin, Putin emphasized the importance of Russia-China cooperation in jointly developing new technologies.

“Relying on traditions of friendship and cooperation, we can look into the future with confidence,” he said. “The Russian-Chinese partnership helps our countries’ economic growth, ensures energy security, helps develop production and create new jobs.”

Putin started the second day of his visit to China on Friday by laying flowers at a monument to fallen Soviet soldiers in Harbin who had fought for China against the Japanese during the second Sino-Japanese war, when Japan occupied parts of China.

At their summit Thursday, Putin thanked Xi for China’s proposals for ending the war in Ukraine, while Xi said China hopes for the early return of Europe to peace and stability and will continue to play a constructive role toward this. Their joint statement described their world view and expounded on criticism of U.S. military alliances in Asia and the Pacific.

The meeting was yet another affirmation of the friendly “no limits” relationship China and Russia signed in 2022, just before Moscow invaded Ukraine.

Putin has become isolated globally for his invasion of Ukraine. China has a tense relationship with the U.S., which has labeled it a competitor, and faces pressure for continuing to supply key components to Russia needed for weapons production.

Talks of peacefully resolving the Ukraine crisis featured frequently in Thursday’s remarks, though Russia just last week opened a new front in the Ukraine war by launching attacks at its northeastern border area. The war is at a critical point for Ukraine, which had faced delays in getting weapons from the U.S.

China offered a broad plan for peace last year that was rejected by both Ukraine and the West for failing to call for Russia to leave occupied parts of Ukraine.

In a smaller meeting Thursday night at Zhongnanhai, the Chinese leaders’ residential compound, Putin thanked Xi for his peace plan and said he welcomed China continuing to play a constructive role in a political solution to the problem, according to China’s official Xinhua News Agency. They also attended events to celebrate 75 years of bilateral relations.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine, Russia has increasingly depended on China as Western sanctions have taken a bite. Trade between the two countries increased to $240 billion last year, as China helped its neighbor defray the worst of Western sanctions.

European leaders have pressed China to ask Russia to end its invasion in Ukraine, to little avail. Experts say China and Russia’s relationship with each other offer strategic benefits, particularly at a time when both have tensions with Europe and the U.S.

“Even if China compromises on a range of issues, including cutting back support on Russia, it’s unlikely that the U.S. or the West will drastically change their attitude to China as a competitor,” said Hoo Tiang Boon, who researches Chinese foreign policy at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University. “They see very little incentive for compromise.”

Xi and Putin have a longstanding agreement to visit each other’s countries once a year, and Xi was welcomed at the Kremlin last year. 

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