What will China want to talk about during Vladimir Putin's state visit?

15 May 2024, 22:08 | Updated: 16 May 2024, 08:03

Russian President Vladimir Putin's trip to China is part of the great power politics currently being played out between the West and the global south. 

In this arena, China's President Xi Jinping is promoting his multipolar view of the world, a realignment of the world's geopolitical centre away from the US and Europe, to Asia.

Xi sees China front and centre on the stage, with a coterie of countries to back him up.

China, Russia, Iran and North Korea are at one end of the spectrum, but widen out the view and there is also Brazil, India and South Africa, who all see the world through a lens at odds with the West.

Added to that is the so-called "no-limits" friendship between Russia and China. It has been tested to the limit as Russia continues its war in Ukraine. But there is no sign China has any plan to abandon its neighbour.

So what will China want to talk about?

First, the Russia-Ukraine war. China is under growing pressure from the US and Europe to rein in exports of dual-use items like semiconductors and machinery tools that Russia can use on the battlefield.

But if China is feeling the heat, you wouldn't know it. Its exports to Russia surged last year. The way Xi Jinping sees it, Russia is another market for China's export driven economy, and with Western companies banned from doing business with Russia, China has stepped in to take advantage of it.

China is also resisting pressure from the West to use its leverage to force Mr Putin to wind down the war.

While President Xi doesn't want to see Russia in the grip of collapse, after all they share a 2,500-mile-long border, a long, grinding war in Ukraine has benefits for China.

It drains European energy and resources, distracts the US and allows China to get on with its territorial claims in Asia and its ambition to dominate international trade in EVs, solar panels and batteries.

Read more:
As Putin visits Xi, one is clearly stronger than the other
Putin's Victory Day parade is bid to display might despite isolation
As Western weapons trickle through, Putin seizes chance to hit Kharkiv

In this Sino-Russian relationship, China has the upper hand. It's receiving cheap raw materials from Russia and paying 30% less for natural gas than Europe did before the war. China is calling the shots.

While Mr Putin and Mr Xi have an enduring friendship, this alignment is a thorn in the side for the West. But there seems little Europe and the US can do about it. Threats aren't working, sanctioning Chinese banks might.

For Beijing, it's all about balance. China needs the US and Europe to remain open to its exports. So far, it has been able to have it all. However, it's becoming increasingly untenable for the West to stand by while China stands with Russia.

A time may yet come when President Xi Jinping is forced to make a choice.