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2 of America's biggest antagonists to meet: Russia and China's presidents

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Russian President Vladimir Putin heads to China for a two-day summit with Chinese leader Xi Jinping starting tomorrow.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It is Putin's first trip abroad following his inauguration, starting his fifth term in office. Russia and China have found common cause in challenging the West.

MARTIN: Joining us to talk more about this is NPR's Charles Maynes in Moscow. Good morning, Charles.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Good morning, Michel.

MARTIN: Even though this is Putin's fifth term, you know, that first trip abroad is usually significant. So what does this signal about the importance of China to Putin right now?

MAYNES: Well, you're right. You know, the first trip abroad is a sign of who your closest allies are. Putin and Xi famously signed what they called a no-limits partnership back in 2022. That seemed to include no limits to the number of meetings. This is their 43rd time getting together. But, of course, their relationship has been tested by Putin's decision to invade Ukraine. The war not only upended the global economy, including China's. It puts Xi in something of a bind in other ways. You know, formerly, China is neutral on the war, but Xi has provided Moscow with diplomatic cover, endorsing the Russian view that this conflict was provoked by NATO, and he's rebuffed Western calls for him to reign in Putin. Moreover, Xi has provided economic cover with Chinese trade protecting Russia from western sanctions. And Xi has done all of this while trying to keep Chinese economic interests in the West, which are, of course, much larger than its trade with Russia, on a stable course. So it's no easy task.

MARTIN: So given all that, what's on the agenda?

MAYNES: Well, there are some symbolic events. Xi and Putin are celebrating 75 years since the Soviet Union recognized the People's Republic of China. They'll also kickstart a year of cultural exchanges. But the more substantive part of this visit is focused on booming trade between the two sides amid the war in Ukraine. That includes Chinese imports to Russia, where Chinese businesses have replaced Western suppliers for goods like cars and home electronics. But also, of course, Russian exports to China - cheap Russian gas and oil in particular, as Russia has seen its European businesses dry up. So now, the problem here is that this arrangement has come under strain recently, as the U.S. has sanctioned some Chinese exporters and threatened to go after Chinese banks that the White House says are aiding the Russian war machine. Beijing denies the charge, but it's put a drag on trade recently, and either way, President Putin is clearly looking to resolve these new sanctioned snags. In fact, he'll be joined by a large delegation that includes key banking and energy representatives, as well as his top economic team.

MARTIN: And, you know, we have to note that this trip comes as Russia seems to be making progress on the battlefield in Ukraine, and we've been talking about that this week. How does that affect the Russian-Chinese relationship?

MAYNES: Well, it can't hurt to feel like you're backing the side that has the upper hand. But even in previous meetings, when things weren't going so well for Russia on the battlefield, Putin repeatedly made this pitch to Xi that what we're experiencing in Ukraine is the same as what China is experiencing in Taiwan and elsewhere. In other words, the West is out to contain both of our countries, and this is our common challenge, and you don't want us to lose.

MARTIN: So you don't want us to lose. OK, so I guess that's one reason Putin's bringing along his new defense minister.

MAYNES: Well, not only that, Putin's bringing his former defense minister, and that's notable not only given Western suspicions that Beijing has been helping the Russian military all along. It also tells the Chinese there's no chaos here behind the scenes.

MARTIN: That is NPR Charles Maynes. In Moscow, Charles, thank you.

MAYNES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.