Russian President Vladimir Putin told his counterpart Xi Jinping he understands Beijing’s “questions and concerns” about his invasion of Ukraine, as the Chinese leader said the two countries could “inject stability and positive energy to a world in chaos”.

In their first in-person talks since the war began, Putin hailed “the balanced position of our Chinese friends on the Ukraine crisis” and offered to “explain in detail our position” on Ukraine. In short televised comments at the start of the meeting, the Russian leader also blasted what he called “provocations by the US and its satellites in the Taiwan Strait”.

Calling Putin “old friend”, Xi said, “China is willing to work with Russia, display the responsibilities of the major powers, and play a leading role to inject stability and positive energy to a world in chaos.”

Their meeting came as both Russia and China face growing pressure from the US and its allies over the war in Ukraine and Beijing’s increased military activity around Taiwan. Xi has resisted Washington’s call to condemn Russia’s invasion, while Moscow has pledged its “solidarity” for Beijing over Taiwan, a self-ruled island that China claims as its territory.

They met on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), a Beijing-led group seen as a counter to US-dominated alliances.

When Xi and Putin last saw each other in February at the Beijing Winter Olympics, they declared a “no limits” friendship. The Russian leader ordered an attack on Ukraine weeks later, a move that initially seemed to surprise Beijing.

Return to world stage

China has since provided verbal backing for Moscow. The Asian nation’s No. 3 official, Li Zhanshu, recently told Russian lawmakers that leaders in Beijing “fully understand the necessity” of Putin’s actions. Yet, China has avoided sending military supplies or providing financial support, which would make Beijing a target of economic sanctions that Washington and others have applied to Russia.

Xi’s presence in Central Asia marks his return to the world stage after nearly 1000 days at home, after he became the only Group of 20 leader to avoid leaving his country since the first COVID-19 lockdown began in January 2020.

The tour began on Wednesday in Kazakhstan, where the 69-year-old held talks with President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. Xi was originally expected to make his inaugural international trip in November for the G-20 summit in Bali, which will be attended by US President Joe Biden as well as Putin.

Xi has appeared wearing a mask for most of his meetings on the Central Asian trip, but wasn’t when he met Putin, who has almost never appeared in public with a face covering. Most of the members of the delegations seated at the large oval table were masked.

The Chinese leader’s decision to visit Central Asia first has put the focus on meetings with leaders from Russia, India, Pakistan and Iran – countries more aligned with Beijing’s efforts to push back on the US and its allies.

Key congress ahead

The Chinese leader is expected to use the SCO summit as a platform to promote his vision of a world where Beijing can expand its interests without US economic or military pressure. Xi is a month away from a twice-in-a-decade Communist Party congress where he’s expected to clinch a precedent-busting third term, and push his agenda for a multipolar world.

China’s ties with the US have worsened recently over Taiwan, after Nancy Pelosi became the first House Speaker in 25 years to visit the democratic island. Beijing responded with unprecedented military drills around Taiwan, including launching ballistic missiles directly over the island.

On Wednesday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved a bill to boost ties with Taipei and give it more military hardware to deter a Chinese invasion, a development that is likely to further strain ties.

Prior to his meeting with Putin, Xi also sat down with leaders from Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan on Thursday, pledging closer ties with the Central Asian nations.

The Chinese leader told Kyrgyzstan’s President Sadyr Japarov that construction should start soon on the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway, according to state broadcaster China Central Television. The route will reduce Beijing’s dependence on Russia and Kazakhstan to transit goods.

In a separate meeting with his Turkmenistan counterpart, Serdar Berdimuhamedov, Xi said the two countries should scale up co-operation on natural gas, the official Xinhua News Agency reported.

Xi also held talks with Tajikistan’s President Emomali Rahmon, pledging to import more agricultural goods from the Central Asian nation and deepen co-operation in areas including transit and anti-terrorism, CCTV reported.