Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping met Friday on the sidelines of the Beijing Winter Olympics on Friday, a show of solidarity and shared grievance calibrated to challenge the U.S.-led world order amid a tense diplomatic standoff on Ukraine.
Their sweeping joint statement to mark the occasion was a unified blast at the United States — and some of the major impasses between Russia and the West playing out with Moscow’s forces massed near Ukraine’s border.
They expressed opposition to NATO enlargement and called out “actors representing but the minority on the international scale” who “continue to advocate unilateral approaches to addressing international issues.”
President Biden’s absence from the spectacle — having ordered a diplomatic boycott in protest of Beijing’s human rights abuses — underscored the not-so-subtle subtext of Friday’s Olympic event: the renewed division of the world, at the moment at least, into two major camps, China and Russia versus the United States and its allies.
Xi, who has not met another foreign leader in person in almost two years, said China and Russia “firmly support each other in safeguarding their core interests,” according to a summary of the meeting by China’s state news agency Xinhua.
Adding deeds to the words, Putin announced a deal to supply China with more gas via a new pipeline.
Putin’s starring role at Xi’s Olympics comes as Russia faces foreign censure over its military buildup around Ukraine and as China bristles through the partial diplomatic boycott of the Games.
The joint statement gave China the opportunity to provide some diplomatic cover to Russia’s regional mobilization, by framing it in broader terms as part of a response to U.S. global policies rather than as Russian expansionism.
On Friday, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg pushed back on that narrative. “This is fundamentally not about NATO expansion,” he said Friday on MSNBCs “Morning Joe.”
“This is about respecting independent sovereign choices of independent nations, not returning to an age of spheres of influence where big powers decide what small neighbors can do or not do,” he said.
The Chinese and Russian statement touched on issues of concern to one or both countries, from Taiwan to the centrality of the U.N. Security Council to Japan’s handling of water from the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster site. The statement praised each country’s “world power status” and discussed — in great detail — the meaning of democracy, human rights and freedom.
“Russia and China stand against attempts by external forces to undermine security and stability in their common adjacent regions,” the statement said, and “intend to counter interference by outside forces in the internal affairs of sovereign countries under any pretext.”
Just hours before their meeting, the United States warned China against helping Russia dodge potential sanctions related to the crisis in Ukraine.
Washington and its allies “have an array of tools” that can be deployed against “foreign companies, including those in China” that attempt to evade potential punitive measures against Russia, State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters Thursday. He declined to offer specifics, but Western officials have floated penalties on Russian financial institutions, curbs on U.S. technology exports and personal sanctions against Kremlin leaders and their associates.
Analysts noted that Chinese support could embolden the Kremlin. The last time China hosted the Olympics, in the summer of 2008, Russia invaded Georgia as Putin watched that event’s Opening Ceremonies in Beijing.
China and Russia have grown closer in the years since. Beijing is frustrated by Western criticism of its human rights abuses against ethnic minorities and its aggressive stance on Taiwan, while Moscow has justified its massing of troops near Ukraine by citing the expansion of NATO into what Putin sees as Russia’s traditional sphere of influence.
In a phone call last week with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, China’s foreign minister said that Russia’s security concerns should be taken seriously and addressed, according to an account in Chinese state media.
But the Russia-China relationship is not without internal tensions. Russia and China could become more dependent on each other if there is a crisis in Ukraine. China also has close commercial relations with Ukraine. Additional Russian actions in Ukraine may lead to coordinated U.S. action by its allies. This is not good news for Beijing.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki, speaking later in the day at a briefing, sought to remind China that “a destabilizing conflict in Europe would impact China’s interests all over the world, and certainly China should know that.”
Fresh in the news was the claim by the United States of a potential fabricated attack video that officials said Moscow was considering that could be used as a pretext for an invasion. According to the Biden administration, this video may contain “graphic scenes showing a fake explosion with bodies.” According to the Biden administration, Russian intelligence was involved in these efforts. This is according to a top Biden official who spoke under anonymity because of rules by the administration.
Russian officials denied the alleged false-flag operation. “We are not surprised by the new ‘creative’ scenario,” the Russian Embassy in Washington said in a statement that also referenced the flawed intelligence presented by the George W. Bush administration in the run-up to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Price, the State Department spokesman, said the Biden administration called out the purported video plan publicly to prevent Russia from using it as a pretext to attack Ukraine.
Jeong reported from Seoul. Rauhala reported in Brussels. This report was contributed by Robyn Dixon in Moscow and Mary Ilyushina, David L. Stern, Eva Dou, Eva Dou, Amy Cheng, and Rick Noack, Paris.