Chinese defense minister meets Putin in Moscow, hails military ties

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Russian President Vladimir Putin and China’s Defense Minister Li Shangfu met Sunday in Moscow, where the two hailed their countries’ close military cooperation.

The meeting kicked off Li’s four-day visit to Russia – his first overseas trip since stepping into the role last month. It comes as Western countries have ramped up pressure on Beijing to push Putin to end his war against Ukraine.

Li, a general and veteran of China’s military modernization drive, was sanctioned by the United States in 2018 over transactions with Russia’s state-controlled arms exporter Rosoboronexport, when he lead the Chinese military’s Equipment Development Department.

Those transactions included Russia’s delivery to China of Su-35 combat aircraft in 2017 and S-400 surface-to-air missile system-related equipment in 2018, according to the US State Department.

Li’s trip follows Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s state visit to Russia last month, in which Xi and Putin further cemented their countries’ ties and pledged to “deepen military mutual trust” and strengthen military exchanges and cooperation.

TOPSHOT - Russian President Vladimir Putin and China's President Xi Jinping make a toast during a reception following their talks at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 21, 2023. (Photo by Pavel Byrkin / SPUTNIK / AFP) (Photo by PAVEL BYRKIN/SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images)

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During his meeting with Li on Sunday, Putin called Xi’s recent visit to Russia “very productive,” and said relations between Russia and China were developing well in all areas, including the military departments, according to a Kremlin statement.

Military cooperation ️between the countries was “one of the most important areas that strengthens the remarkably trusting, strategic nature of relations,” Putin said.

Li told Putin that trust between the two countries’ militaries has been “increasingly consolidated” and cooperation has yielded “fruitful results,” according to a readout from Chinese state media.

China was ready to work with Russia to “strengthen strategic communication between the two militaries, strengthen multilateral coordination and cooperation, and make new contributions to safeguarding regional and global security and stability,” Li said, citing consensus between Xi and Putin.

Ukraine was not mentioned in either side’s official readout of the meeting.

China has claimed neutrality over the war in Ukraine and called for peace in the conflict. But it has also refused to condemn Russia’s invasion or make any public call for Russia to withdraw its troops. Its officials have instead repeatedly said that the “legitimate” security concerns of all countries must be taken into account and accused NATO and the US of fueling the conflict.

Nevertheless, European leaders have expressed hope that Xi could use his rapport with Putin to push for peace. Several leaders traveled to the Chinese capital in recent days in an attempt to advance such aims.

During a joint press conference with her Chinese counterpart in Beijing on Friday, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said Xi’s recent visit to Moscow indicates that no country has a larger influence over Russia than China.

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“In the same fashion as how China mediated between Iran and Saudi Arabia, we want China to use that influence to urge Russia to end its war in Ukraine,” Baerbock said, referring to a recent Beijing-brokered deal that saw the two long-standing Middle Eastern rivals restore diplomatic ties.

Her visit followed a joint trip from French President Emmanuel Macron and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, in which Ukraine was high on the agenda.

A joint statement from Macron and Xi released by the Elysee, however, failed to see the Chinese leader depart from Beijing’s previously stated positions on the war.

Meanwhile, the US and its allies have repeatedly raised concerns that China was considering sending lethal aid to the Kremlin’s war effort – a claim Beijing has denied. The two countries have continued to run joint military exercises around the world since the Russian invasion.

Li is expected to remain in Moscow until Wednesday. He will hold talks with Russian military officials and visit Russian military academies during the visit, a ministry spokesperson said last week.

Li took up the largely ceremonial post of defense minister last month during the annual meeting of China’s rubber-stamp legislature. He is also a member on the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Military Commission, which controls the military in practice.

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