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February 2, 2022

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.


Few leaders to attend the Olympics
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 neighbouring powers.



Will history be repeated?
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 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.



New alliance?
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.



2021 a banner year for Russia-China relations
The neighbouring powers have been drawn closer over time by their economic ties, the need for security along their more than 4,000 kilometres (2,485 miles) 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.

 
"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 the competition with China, analysts say.

Putin-Xi friendship

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 being strongmen leaders, and each appreciates the other for what they have managed to do,"



Will The Olympic customary "Olympic Truce" be obeyed

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."







SOURCE: CNN
IMAGE SOURCE: dailymail.co.uk