Editor’s Note: A version of this story appeared in CNN’s Meanwhile in China newsletter, a three-times-a-week update exploring what you need to know about the country’s rise and how it impacts the world. Sign up here.
When Chinese President Xi Jinping welcomes leaders from around the world for the Opening Ceremony of the Beijing Olympics on Friday, it will be his first time meeting foreign counterparts face-to-face in more than 400 days. And at the top of his guest list is Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
A summit between the two leaders, expected to take place on the day of the Opening Ceremony, comes at a pivotal moment for both sides, as the massing of Russian troops at the border with Ukraine fuels fears of an imminent invasion – an event that would be sure to overshadow China’s Olympic moment.
The face-to-face will also add a new milestone in what has become an increasingly close partnership between Beijing and Moscow, as relations with the West deteriorate for both.
Putin is among a small group of world leaders to attend the Games, with Western governments including the United States, Britain and Australia, having declared a diplomatic boycott over China’s human rights record. Other leaders have turned down invitations, citing Beijing’s stringent Covid-19 controls.
This means Beijing 2022 will cut a sharp contrast to the city’s 2008 Summer Games, when then-US President George Bush and other Western leaders were pictured glad-handing Chinese officials while cheering on their national teams.
Instead, this Olympics is set to spotlight the space that has appeared between China and the West during the intervening years, while the summit – and Putin’s top billing on a list of visiting dignitaries published by China’s Foreign Ministry – points to the closeness between the two neighboring powers.
The question now being asked by many in the West is whether these Olympics will see a replay of what happened during the last time Beijing hosted an Olympics, when Russia invaded a different former Soviet state, Georgia. And as tensions continue to build on the Ukraine border all eyes will be on Putin.
“It’s a very dramatic moment in Russia’s confrontation with the West and, in a way, China’s confrontation with the West,” said Alexander Gabuev, a senior fellow and the chair of the Russia in the Asia-Pacific Program at the Carnegie Moscow Center.
That it represents the first in-person meeting between the two leaders in more than two years only serves to underscore its significance. Xi has not left China since January 2020, instead relying on “cloud diplomacy,” delivering speeches at major international events and meeting foreign leaders via video link. He did not host a foreign dignitary for the entirety of 2021, as China maintained closed borders and its “zero-Covid” policy.
In his last known in-person meetings, Xi welcomed Cambodian King Norodom Sihamoni in Beijing in November, 2020, and prior to that held talks with visiting Pakistani President Arif Alvi in March of that year.
All this hits at a time when Beijing and Moscow have been burnishing their partnership in trade, technology and coordination of military exercises, while becoming increasingly vocal about how their cooperation can push back on a Western world order dominated by what China has referred to as “so-called alliances and small cliques.”
In a December video-call with Putin, Xi called for China and Russia “to step up coordination and collaboration in international affairs” and to reject “hegemonic acts and the Cold War mentality.”
While analysts say that Beijing is likely to maintain a broadly ambivalent tone and call for peace when it comes to any future Russian actions over Ukraine, China has already shown sympathy with Moscow’s message to NATO – which calls for security guarantees to limit the organization’s footprint along Russia’s border.
In a phone call between Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken last week, Wang called for “Russia’s legitimate security concerns” to be taken seriously.
Russia and China have a long history of supporting each other against what they view as Western interference in their domestic affairs, pushing back on US-led sanctions and often voting as a bloc in the UN.
On Monday, China was the only member of the United Nations Security Council to vote alongside Russia to dismiss a council meeting called by the US to discuss Russia’s military build-up at the Ukrainian border – a call that Russia said amounted to the US “whipping up hysteria.”
The neighboring powers have been drawn closer over time by their economic ties, the need for security along their more than 4,000 kilometer (2,485 mile) border, as well as similarities in the nature of their regimes, according to Gabuev.
But the “secret sauce” of their tightening ties in recent years has been their simultaneous confrontations with Washington, he said.
“For Russia (relations with the US) have gone from bad to worse … and with China we’ve seen consistent US policy to compete with the Chinese,” Gabuev said.
2021 was a banner year for Chinese-Russian relations, as the two sides renewed a 20-year treaty on friendly cooperation, racked up a record-breaking $146 billion in bilateral trade, and declared their relations had reached “the highest level” in history.
They’ve also looked bolster coordination of military exercises, holding a large-scale joint military exercise in northern China and the first joint China-Russia naval patrol in the western Pacific.
These ties are still a far cry from a formal military alliance, however, and both have shied away from becoming directly involved in each other’s potential conflicts, experts say – something that’s likely to be the case in the latest tensions.
“While Beijing is likely to show an understanding of Russia’s security requests to NATO and the US and to oppose the provocations and sanctions from the West, it has no real interest in becoming entangled in Russia’s conflicts with NATO,” said Anna Kireeva, an associate professor at Moscow State Institute of International Relations. “The policymakers in Moscow are well aware of this position.”
But, conflict in Europe would undoubtedly serve to strengthen ties, especially if Russia were to be slapped with deep-cutting Western sanctions, increasing Moscow’s economic reliance on China. Beijing could also benefit from a diversion of US focus away from competition with China, analysts say.
Friday’s meeting ahead of the Games may also showcase another side of the China-Russia dynamic: the close personal rapport between the two leaders.
That has been on show in the lead-up to the summit, with Xi in December calling Putin his “old friend” and saying he was “very much looking forward” to their Olympic get-together.
“For all the structural issues that make the China-Russia relationship a complex and difficult strategic partnership, Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin are much more cooperative with each other” as compared with pairings of leaders from the two nations in the recent past, said Steve Tsang, director of SOAS China Institute at the University of London.
“There is an element of personal chemistry in terms of both are strongmen leaders, and each appreciates the other for what they have managed to do,” Tsang said.
Putin will brief his Chinese counterpart about Russia’s talks with the United States and NATO, Russian state media said last month, while the two are expected to focus on strengthening cooperation across a range of areas.
Such an in-person meeting will provide an opportunity to “energize” their bilateral ties, according to Yu Bin, professor of political science at Ohio’s Wittenberg University and a senior fellow at the Russian Studies Center of the East China Normal University in Shanghai.
“At the personal level, do not forget that both Putin and Xi are fans of various sports. They will enjoy the Olympics while talking about world issues,” he said, adding that China may not believe a potential invasion, as described by Western governments, is imminent.
But deep questions over what may happen over Russia’s conflict with the West and in Ukraine are sure to hang over the meeting.
The UN last month endorsed the customary “Olympic Truce” – a ceasefire during the Games, though Russia’s past invasion of Georgia, as well as Russian troops taking Ukraine’s Crimea region on the heels of Russia’s own winter Olympics in Sochi stand out in recent memory.
But today, given the countries’ rapport, Putin may tread more lightly, according to Carnegie Moscow Center’s Gabuev.
“My guess is that Russia is apprehensive of China’s sensitivities when it comes to the Opening Ceremony and maybe some part of the Olympics,” he said.
“Russia wants to give it enough spotlight in the media, and it also doesn’t want to steal attention from Putin’s Xi meeting … (which reinforces the message that) even if sanctions (do) happen, Russia is not on its own, but has a partnership with another global superpower.”