Vladimir Putin’s state visit to China this week was a show of strength. It was a chance for the Russian president to prove to the world that he has a powerful ally in his corner. The Russian leader is widely regarded as a pariah after ordering the invasion of Ukraine. But to China’s President Xi Jinping, he is a key partner in seeking a new world order that is not led by the US. And Mr Xi made his guest welcome. He rolled out the red carpet, the band played old Red Army songs, and cheering children greeted both leaders as they strolled through Tiananmen Square. There was even a brief hug for the cameras. Russian and Chinese state media focused heavily on the camaraderie between the two leaders. But in truth, this is no longer a partnership of equals. Mr Putin came to China cap in hand, eager for Beijing to continue trading with a heavily sanctioned and isolated Russia. His statements were filled with honeyed tones and flattering phrases. He said that his family were learning Mandarin – this was particularly noteworthy because he very rarely talks about his children in public. He declared that he and Mr Xi were “as close as brothers” and went on to praise China’s economy, saying it was “developing in leaps and bounds, at a fast pace”. This will likely play well with Beijing officials worried by a sluggish economy. But Mr Xi himself did not echo the tone of these lofty compliments. Instead, his remarks were more perfunctory – even bland. Mr Putin, he said, was a “good friend and a good neighbour”. For China, the welcome ceremony and show of unity is in its interests, but lavishing its guest with praise is not. The costly war in Ukraine, which shows no signs of ending, has changed their relationship, exposing the weaknesses in Russia’s army and its economy. Mr Xi will know that he is now in charge. The war has isolated Russia. China’s ties with the West may be tense, but Beijing has not cut itself off from the world like Russia, nor does it want to. Getty Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping walk on a red carpet Getty While the public statements may have lacked enthusiasm, President Xi did hint at the importance that China places on the relationship. He invited Mr Putin to his official residence, Zhongnanhai. Few leaders are afforded that honour – US President Barack Obama being among them back in 2014, when ties between the two were at their best. President Xi is attempting a fine balance – he wants to maintain an alliance with Mr Putin, while also knowing that close ties with a pariah puts at risk his stable ties with the West which he needs to help his ailing economy. The fact is, this visit was all about the money: Mr Putin needs China’s support for his war in Ukraine. The make-up of the Russian leader’s entourage was a sign of what he hoped to get out of the trip: he brought with him the governor of Russia’s Central Bank, his finance minister and his economics advisor. The joint statement released to mark the visit also contained some eye-catching ideas to increase trade – building a port on an island which the two countries once wrangled over for more than 100 years, and speaking to North Korea to see if Chinese ships could navigate through a key river to reach the Sea of Japan. It mentioned the word “co-operation” 130 times. More from InDepth Is the move to electric cars running out of power? Could the US economy be doing too well? How it went wrong for Project Sunak All of this will, of course, have been carefully watched by the US. Last month, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned China to stop fuelling Russia’s war and trading in components that could be used in Russian drones and tanks. So they will not have missed the fact Mr Putin toured a state-backed university famous for its cutting-edge defense research during Friday’s visit to the city of Harbin. The tour – and the ceremony and symbolism surrounding this visit – certainly appears to suggest Mr Xi is determined to prove that he will not be swayed by pressure from the West. But behind the scenes of this show of unity, there may be limits to how far Mr Xi is prepared to go. After all, China’s interests are not Russia’s interests. As the senior partner in this relationship, Mr Xi will likely co-operate when it suits him – even if his “dear friend” and ally needs him.

Vladimir Putin’s state visit to China this week was a show of strength. It was a chance for the Russian president to prove to the

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