Vladimir Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping discussed the conflict in the Middle East during a meeting on the sidelines of the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing Wednesday, according to the Russian leader – who said “common threats” brought the two countries closer.
The international gathering, which saw leaders and representatives from countries mostly in the Global South congregate in the Chinese capital, took place under the shadow of war between Israel and militant group Hamas that threatens to escalate into broader regional conflict.
“We discussed in detail the situation in the Middle East,” Putin said in a press conference. “I informed Chairman (Xi) about the situation that is developing on the Ukrainian track, also quite in detail.”
“All these external factors are common threats, and they strengthen Russian-Chinese interaction,” Putin added.
A readout published by Chinese state media said Xi had conducted an “in-depth exchange of views” on the situation of Israel and the Palestinians with his Russian counterpart, but did not provide any further details of what was discussed. Beijing has yet to name or condemn Hamas in its statements.
Neither Putin nor Xi mentioned the conflict in addresses earlier Wednesday at the start of the gathering, where the Chinese leader welcomed two dozen world leaders and more than a hundred delegations to an event marking the 10th anniversary of the Belt and Road Initiative – an ambitious yet controversial undertaking to boost connectivity and trade across the world with Chinese infrastructure projects.
But the conflict, which began after Hamas launched a terror attack on Israel earlier this month, has served as a stark showing of the deepening divisions between world powers.
China and Russia have both called for ceasefire in the spiraling conflict and have declined to explicitly condemn Hamas – cutting a stark contrast to the outpouring of support for Israel from the US and leaders across Europe.
Later on Wednesday, US President Joe Biden landed in Tel Aviv in a show of staunch support for Israel, which has vowed to eliminate Hamas following the Islamic militant group’s brutal attack on the country earlier this month.
Speaking at the Belt and Road Forum, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was the sole leader to mention the conflict during an opening ceremony, where he called for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire.
“I’m fully aware of the deep grievances of the Palestinian people after 56 years of occupation, yet as serious as these grievances are they cannot justify the acts of terror against civilians committed by Hamas on October 7 (which) I immediately condemned,” he said.
“But those events cannot justify the collective punishment of The Palestinian people.”
‘A fairer, multi-polar world’
The day’s events also underscored the deepening political trust between Xi and Putin, who was the gathering’s clear guest of honor, seated next to the Chinese leader and speaking directly after him at the opening ceremony ahead of three hours of bilateral talks between the two..
In his speech at the opening ceremony, Putin hailed Xi’s flagship foreign policy Belt and Road Initiative as “aiming to form a fairer, multi-polar world,” while touting his country’s deep alignment with China.
Russia and China share an “aspiration for equal and mutually beneficial cooperation,” which includes “respecting civilization diversity and the right of every state for their own development model” – he added, in an apparent push back against calls for authoritarian leaders to promote human rights and political freedoms at home.
The visit to Beijing is an exceptionally rare overseas trip for Putin, who is shunned by the West and wanted by the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes in Ukraine, where his army continues to wage destructive attacks.
Putin’s comments at the forum followed an address from Xi, who lauded his Belt and Road Initiative during the ceremony in an ornate room in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, presenting it as an alternative development model for the world and saying it “established a new framework for international cooperation.”
Xi also used the gathering to project China’s expanding ambitions to reshape – and lead – the global world order.
“China is endeavoring to build itself into a stronger country and rejuvenate the Chinese nation on all fronts by pursuing Chinese modernization. The modernization we’re pursuing is not for China alone, but for all developing countries through joint efforts,” he said.
In a thinly veiled swipe at the United States, the Chinese leader said China opposed unilateral sanctions, economic coercion, decoupling and supply chain disruption.
“Ideological confrontation, geopolitical rivalry and bloc politics are not a choice for us,” he said.
“Viewing others’ development as a threat or taking economic interdependence as a risk will not make one’s own life better or speed up one’s development.”
Other world leaders in attendance, including Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev and Indonesia’s Joko Widodo, also gave addresses, with many echoing Xi’s call for increased global development and a more multilateral, cooperative world.
An alternative world order
Xi, the most powerful and assertive Chinese leader in decades, has been ramping up efforts to project China as an alternative leader to the US – with a vision for how global security and development should be ensured.
Hosting leaders in Beijing – China’s first major international event since the end of the Covid-19 pandemic – is a key part of his push to pitch that vision to nations it has forged close ties with over the past decade as Xi aimed to vastly expand his nation’s global influence.
But it also comes as China faces stark challenges at home, with a slowing economy, high unemployment and a series of recent unexplained shake-ups in the upper echelons of the ruling Communist Party.
Beijing aims to gloss over these challenges at the gathering to project its power and laud its contributions to global development as a prime example of its superior leadership.
That signature foreign policy has marshaled hundreds of billions in Chinese finance to build ports, power stations, bridges, rails and roads around the world – significantly expanding China’s international interests and influence along the way.
In Beijing on Wednesday countries expressed their aspirations for more collaboration under the program – including those with few major powers to look to other than China.
Yar Mohammad Ramazan, a transport and aviation ministry representative from the Taliban delegation led by its commerce minister, told CNN that Afghanistan aims to “play a big and important role in these Belt and Road” projects connecting Central Asia, South Asia and the Persian Gulf.
More than 150 countries have cooperated on the program, which Beijing says has mobilized “up to a trillion dollars in investments,” spurring growth in developing nations.
But it faces increasing headwinds as China’s economic growth engine slows amid a shifting financial climate worldwide and questions about its high costs for countries – from debt to environmental impact.
China’s infrastructure building spree has now made it the world’s largest debt collector, analysts say.
In his address Wednesday, Xi brushed aside criticisms and reiterated his commitment to the initiative.
“What has been achieved in the past 10 years demonstrates that Belt and Road cooperation is on the right side of history. It represents the advancing of our times and it’s the right path forward,” he said.
Xi also proposed an eight-part action plan on the Belt and Road initiative, including the full removal of restrictions on foreign investment in Chinese manufacturing and an initiative on global artificial intelligence governance.
CNN’s Wayne Chang, Anna Chernova and Hafsa Khalil contributed to this report.