The presidents of China and Russia agree to strengthen bilateral ties (2022) 2:20
Hong Kong (CNN) --
Hong Kong (CNN) --
Antony Blinken is due to make a trip to Beijing in the coming days for what would be the first visit to China by a US secretary of state since 2018, in stark contrast to what that occurred in the Chinese capital a year earlier.
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Back then, Chinese leader Xi Jinping welcomed Russian President Vladimir Putin to the opening of the Beijing Olympic Games: a gathering to hold talks and hold a dinner in Putin's honor, and declare a partnership." without limits” between the two neighbors.
Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin, at the Diaoyutai State Guest House in Beijing, China, on February 4, 2022. (Li Tao/AP)
Weeks later, when Russian tanks poured across the border into Ukraine, launching an invasion that would devastate the country and spark a humanitarian crisis, Chinese leaders did not back down.
Although Beijing claimed impartiality in the conflict and no prior knowledge of Russia's intentions, it also refused to condemn Moscow.
Instead, he repeated the Kremlin's arguments blaming NATO for provoking the conflict, further fracturing relations with both Europe and the US.
A year later, the contrast of a visit from Blinken doesn't seem like a coincidence.
Financially drained by its now-abandoned zero-Covid strategy, Beijing has been softening its tone on foreign affairs and increasing its diplomacy with Western governments, analysts say, in a bid to make up lost ground and stabilize relations.
In meetings with Blinken during his scheduled trip in early February, as well as with European leaders who have indicated they might visit China in the coming months, the Chinese counterparts are likely to emphasize their long-standing calls for a peaceful resolution and accentuate what they say this is China's "objective and impartial position" on the conflict, analysts say.
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But while the optics may be different from the same period last year, China's support for Russia, when measured by its annual trade, diplomatic engagements and program of joint military exercises, tells a different story.
Those metrics show that, over the past year, China has continued to deepen, not walk away from, their “no limits” partnership, a relationship that has grown stronger in recent years and one that analysts say Beijing continues to view as key to its goals. essential to maintaining national security and rolling back a US-led world order.
“China is very adept at calibrating the narrative based on the audience,” said Alexander Gabuev, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
But when it comes to China's ties to Russia after the Ukraine war, "I don't see any remorse," instead, he added, "China is taking advantage of the opportunities this crisis brings."
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Since the early days of the war in Ukraine, US President Joe Biden's administration has warned the Chinese government of the potential consequences of any material support for Putin's invasion.
US intelligence officials have consistently said they have seen no evidence China provided lethal aid to Russia, but the US recently expressed concern to China over evidence suggesting non-lethal equipment had been sold by US state-owned companies. to Russia, a charge Beijing vehemently denies.
While a handful of Chinese companies have been blacklisted by the United States in connection with the conflict, most appear to have calibrated their business to avoid violating sweeping sanctions imposed by the US and its allies against Moscow.
Beijing has long stressed that it seeks to play a "constructive role" toward a peaceful resolution of the conflict, and during a September meeting, Putin admitted that Beijing had raised "questions and concerns" about the crisis.
Yet China has continued to expand trade with its northern neighbor, opening, for the first time, two permanent bridges to facilitate trade over a key border river and raking in a record 1.28 trillion yuan ($190 billion). last year, according to Chinese data released last month.
That represented an increase of about 30% from 2021, driven in part by Chinese companies buying discounted oil and coal, even as other governments moved to avoid Russian fuel, taking on rising energy prices to avoid funding Russia.
Xi congratulated Putin on the strong trade figures during a regular year-end talk between the two leaders, also calling on the two countries to "enhance strategic coordination" and "continue to be the development opportunity and global partner of the another.” The talk, held by video link in December, was one of at least four talks, including a face-to-face meeting, between Xi and Putin since the start of the war.
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In that period, Xi has yet to speak with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, although the Ukrainian leader has publicly expressed interest.
Meanwhile, the security relationship between China and Russia has raised concerns among America's Asian allies.
In recent months, China has sent more than 2,000 troops to Russia for a joint drill, sent its strategic fighter jets to patrol alongside Russia's over the Sea of Japan and East China Sea, and deployed a series of ships for live-fire joint naval exercises for a week in waters off Japan.
On Tuesday, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg expressed concern about Russia's "increasing military cooperation with China," including "joint operations and exercises in the vicinity of Japan," at a meeting in Tokyo, according to their joint statement.
But even if those commitments, as well as their burgeoning trade and diplomacy, may have increased caution about the China-Russia relationship in the West, they remain the foundation of overall Chinese foreign policy, in which Moscow also plays a key role by reinforce the influence of the Asian country in the UN, according to Jean-Pierre Cabestan, professor emeritus of the Department of Government and International Studies of the Baptist University of Hong Kong.
"(The relationship with Russia) prevails in terms of China's foreign interests... because it is directed against the United States and the US alliance systems, both in Europe... and in Asia," he said.
"China's main goal is to weaken those alliance systems."
While the importance of its relationship with Russia may not have changed, China has worked to reduce its general rhetoric toward the West and renew its diplomacy, analysts say, as it pushes for economic recovery after one of its worst years of performance. economical in almost half a century.
"The overwhelming priority for China is economic recovery, and economic recovery requires ... not having a destabilizing relationship with the United States," said Yun Sun, director of the China Program at the Stimson Center think tank in Washington.
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“That is contributing to this charm offensive,” he said, adding that this was more likely a short-term maneuver as China seeks to recover faltering growth, not a fundamental overhaul of Beijing's assertive foreign policy.
Western governments will be watching this change in tone and diplomatic outreach, and whether it has any potential impact on the war in Ukraine.
For Blinken, who is expected to arrive in China after a relatively friendly face-to-face between Biden and Xi at the G20 in November, the Ukraine war is expected to be one of several key topics during the visit.
The secretary is likely to repeat earlier US warnings about supporting Russian war efforts, but could also look at any possibility of Beijing influencing Moscow towards peace, analysts say.
This has been a line of thinking in Europe, where leaders such as French President Emmanuel Macron, who is also expected to visit China in the coming months, have expressed hope that Beijing will take on that role.
But analysts are skeptical: China is "very carefully feeding these misconceptions" that it could influence Putin over the war, something Beijing likely has little confidence it can do, according to the Carnegie Endowment's Gabuev.
While managing expectations, China could seek to take advantage of this perception to "get some goodwill," but Beijing will remain acutely aware that the root of tensions and challenges in its relations with Western powers run much deeper than concerns. about his relationship with Russia, he said.
That means expectations that China could help the West resolve the conflict, an outcome China has also called for, are likely to hit their limit on Beijing's bottom line.
As Sun says: “You will never see a scenario where China abandons Russia because in the dictionary of China, if Russia falls, China is next.”
Antony Blinken Vladimir Putin Xi Jinping