(HONG KONG) — While one war continues to rage in Ukraine and another is threatening to boil over in the Middle East, Chinese President Xi Jinping held court in Beijing for visiting dignitaries, presenting his vision of “an open, inclusive and interconnected world” through his signature global infrastructure project, the Belt and Road Initiative, while taking veiled swipes at the United States and its Western allies.
In Xi’s keynote speech marking the 10th anniversary of his pet foreign policy project, he criticized those who view “others’ development as a threat” and “economic interdependence as a risk,” saying protectionist actions like those the U.S. has taken against China “will not make one’s own life better or speed up one’s development.”
“We stand against are unilateral sanctions, economic coercion and decoupling,” Xi told the cavernous meeting hall filled with representatives from more than 130 countries this week for the Belt and Road Forum.
Clapping amongst the guests was Russian leader Vladimir Putin, who was personally invited by Xi to attend when the Chinese leader visited Moscow earlier this year.
In Beijing, Xi gave Putin the warm reception he’s been denied on the international stage since the war in Ukraine rendered him a pariah with Western countries. Putin strode into the reception hall walking side-by-side with Xi ahead of the other invited leaders to pose for the group photo that is so ubiquitous to these gatherings.
The Belt and Road Initiative was initially proposed to increase the connectivity between China and the European markets, building linkages through countries across the Eurasian continents, recreating a modern silk road. A decade on, however, Western countries, including the United States, largely shunned the project, criticizing it as debt-trap diplomacy. In their place, the developing nations of the Global South have taken up China’s offer to aid their infrastructure development expanding Beijing’s influence in worldwide. This was reflected in the make up of the forum’s attendees, further highlighting the widening geopolitical divide.
Speaking at the forum immediately after Xi, Putin addressed an audience that included over 20 heads of state including the leaders of Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Kenya, Hungary, Kazakhstan, Argentina and Chile. U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres was also in attendance.
“Russia and China, like most countries of the world, share the aspiration for equal and mutually beneficial cooperation in order to achieve universal sustainable and long-term economic progress and social well-being while respecting the diversity of civilization and the right of each state to its own development model,” the Russian president said.
With representation from Western countries absent or not invited to forum, the void allowed Chinese and Russian state media coverage of the event to portray that it is the West that is decoupling from the rest of the world. China and Russia have increasingly tailored their messaging for the Global South including in their response to Hamas’ attack and Israel’s retaliation.
Creating a split-screen moment with their geopolitical rival US President Biden’s visit to Israel, Xi and Putin continued to meet one-on-one on the sidelines of the forum where the two leaders talked up their enduring partnership and ‘profound friendship.”
Xi called Putin his “old friend,” noting that they have met some 42 times in person since 2013.
In the official Chinese readout of the meetings, Xi stressed that “the deepening China-Russia relations” are “not a stopgap measure, but a long-term solution.”
Putin told Xi, “In current difficult conditions, close foreign policy coordination is especially in demand, which is what we are doing.”
Xi added that China supports Russia in their efforts to “safeguard their sovereignty.”
At a press conference Wednesday evening, Putin said he talked with Xi for three hours including a private one-one-one “over a cup of tea” where the Russian leader teasingly told the Russian press that they discussed “confidential matters.”
Putin characterized the talks as “productive” and “constructive,” covering the two countries’ bilateral relations and the unfolding events in the Middle East without giving more details. The Chinese statement said, “the two heads of state also exchanged in-depth views on the situation in Palestine and Israel” without elaborating.
This is Putin’s first foreign trip beyond friendly former Soviet states since Russia started its war in Ukraine. The Russian leader has mainly stayed home since an arrest warrant was issued for him by the International Criminal Court over alleged war crimes in Ukraine earlier this year. During his last visit to Beijing for the 2022 Winter Games, Beijing and Moscow infamously proclaimed their friendship “has no limits” with no “forbidden areas of cooperation.” This was tested immediately when Putin launched the war soon after the Olympics ended.
While Beijing has refrained from sending direct lethal military aid to Russia, it has refused to condemn Russia’s invasion and limited the impact of Western sanctions by importing more Russian oil and goods.
That cross-border trade between the two neighbors is growing. Putin commented Wednesday that the trade turnover between the two neighbors reached $200 billion in the last year.
Ahead of the forum, Russia and China signed their largest contract for the supply of grains. The head of a Russian grain trade group told the Russian news agency TASS that deal worth nearly $26 billion more than replaces the “lost volume of Ukrainian exports.”
In the Chinese version of their meeting, Xinhua News Agency highlighted Putin commending Xi’s “strategic judgment” in seeing “great changes unseen for a century” taking around the world place in light of recent events.
The quote is Xi’s oft-used shorthand that the global order is changing.
Back in March as Xi prepared to leave Moscow, the two leaders were filmed at the door of the Kremlin as Putin walked the Chinese leader to his awaiting vehicle.
“Right now there are changes — the likes of which we haven’t seen for 100 years — and we are the ones driving these changes together,” Xi told Putin.
“I agree,” the Russian leader responded.
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