Chinese President Xi Jinping has left Moscow after a three-day visit with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin that was ripe with symbolism as they set their sights on shaping a new world order.
But what results actually came from the meeting?
On the evening of March 21, Xi and Putin signed a joint statement after holding centerpiece talks at the Kremlin where they trumpeted China's 'positive role' and 'objective, unbiased position' on Russia's invasion of Ukraine. The two leaders unveiled a package of agreements detailing plans for future economic ties and closer cooperation between each country's state media, while criticizing the West by taking aim at the United States, NATO, and the new AUKUS defense pact between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
But the talks stopped short of delivering the kind of decisive deals on key economic issues that Moscow would need to help it weather growing pressure from Western sanctions, highlighting the limits of Chinese support and a growing power imbalance between the two countries that is skewed in Beijing's favor.
'Xi's goal for this trip is to preserve the status quo with Russia, not to move an inch closer or pave the way for new cooperation,' wrote Yu Jie, a senior research fellow on China at Chatham House, a London-based think tank.
What Came Out Of The Summit?
The meeting was Xi's first visit to Russia since Putin invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022, and was meant to show that despite international instability and turbulence caused by the Ukraine war, Beijing is determined to stand by Moscow's side.
Xi continued to tacitly back Putin's stance on the war during the Moscow trip, and the leaders heralded a new era of bilateral ties that they claimed would change the geopolitical landscape.
Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin share a toast on March 21 during the Chinese leader's three-day visit to Moscow.
'Right now there are changes, the likes of which we haven't seen for 100 years,' Xi told Putin after a March 21 state dinner. 'And we are...driving these changes together.'
But Xi made no direct moves to support the Russian war effort in Ukraine, and the visit failed to deliver some of the big plans that Moscow had hoped for.
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Most notably, Beijing held up confirming plans for the Power of Siberia 2 gas pipeline, a crucial energy node in Russia's strategy to reroute its exports from Europe to Asia that would transit through Mongolia to China.
In public comments on March 21, Putin discussed the pipeline as if an agreement had been reached with the Chinese side, saying that 'practically all the parameters of that agreement have been finalized.' During remarks that day with Xi, Putin added that Mongolia has signed off on Power of Siberia 2 and that Russia has also promised to supply China with at least 98 billion cubic meters of natural gas this year.
SEE ALSO: China In Eurasia Briefing: Xi's Long-Term Bet On Putin
That figure, however, would only be achievable if the new pipeline moves ahead, something Xi was notably silent about during the meeting.
The joint statement from the visit only noted that both China and Russia would 'make efforts to advance work on studying and agreeing' on plans to build the pipeline.
'The companies have been given orders to work out the details of the project in detail and get to signing it in the shortest possible time. Orders have been given to ensure the conditions are agreed,' Russian Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandr Novak told reporters. 'We hope it'll be this year.'
Was There Progress On A Ukrainian Peace Plan?
Ahead of the visit, attention was focused on whether Xi would press Putin toward a cease-fire in Ukraine and if China's proposal to end hostilities, which was released in late February, could be used as a basis to end the war.
In the immediate aftermath of the meeting in Moscow, however, peace in Ukraine looks as distant as it was before.
Xi and Putin speak in Moscow on March 21.
Putin said he was open to China's position paper on how to end the war but that its success depended on Western countries and Kyiv being open to the idea.
The 12-point Chinese plan has been dismissed in the West because it does not explicitly call for Russia to leave Ukraine and is interpreted as an attempt to freeze the conflict on Moscow's terms.
China has been reluctant to help Russia on the battlefield despite warnings by Washington that military aid is being considered by Beijing.
During their shared press conference, Xi and Putin mostly rehashed familiar talking points, warning against 'the practice by any country or group of countries to seek advantages in the military, political, and other areas to the detriment of the legitimate security interests of other countries,' which has been Kremlin phrasing to warn against NATO expansion and that the West is responsible for escalating the war.
SEE ALSO: China In Eurasia Briefing: What's Beijing's Next Move On Ukraine?
Kyiv has been skeptical of the Chinese proposal and insisted Russia withdraw its troops from its territory as a condition for talks, though top officials have stopped short of criticizing Beijing during the war.
Xi has not spoken with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy since Russia's invasion, but The Wall Street Journal reported ahead of Xi's visit that a call between the two leaders was in the cards. Zelenskiy said on March 21 that there was 'no confirmation yet' of any call with Xi.
Has This Changed China and Russia's Relationship?
Beyond the red-carpet welcome, Beijing is walking a diplomatic tightrope around Russia's war in Ukraine, which has left the West more united than it has been in years and strained Beijing's ties with its two main trading partners: the United States and the EU.
The key tenet of the visit was to show that China is still invested in its ties with Russia and the war in Ukraine hasn't changed the basic foundations of their relationship. In a signal of support, Xi said he invited Putin to come to China 'at a convenient time' this year.
But the visit also highlighted the limits of their relationship and showed that China is not prepared to offer Russia the kind of support that could jeopardize its own interests.
Beijing extended a vital economic lifeline to Russia amid the war in Ukraine with bilateral trade reaching a record $190 billion in 2022. The Chinese yuan is also set to become Russia's main foreign currency as Moscow becomes reliant on China as its main energy market.
Xi Jinping receives a red-carpet welcome from a military guard after landing in Moscow on March 20.
That dynamic could play into China's hands.
In 2014, when Moscow faced sanctions over its annexation of Crimea, Beijing was able to negotiate a low-cost supply of gas in the form of the Power of Siberia pipeline, which eventually came online in 2019. Russia's current need to find buyers for its energy could play out along similar lines for the new pipeline and lead to a deal made on China's terms.
Despite the growing power imbalance and economic reliance, Xi has gone to lengths to treat Putin as an equal, and experts contend that the Chinese leader sees Russia as a vital partner in a future struggle with the United States.
This means their relationship is shaped more by shared resentment for Washington than any set of values, and China's main goal is to keep Moscow by its side and prevent it from becoming so weak from its invasion that it would be unable to resist Western pressure.
This point of view seems to be echoed by leading Chinese foreign policy thinkers.
Yang Jiemian, an influential foreign policy scholar and chairman of the Academic Advisory Council for the Shanghai Institute of International Studies, argued in a February assessment that if 'Russia is constantly weakened to the point where it cannot, will not, or dare not struggle against the United States and the West, that will ultimately leave China confronting totally unfavorable strategic circumstances.'
Copyright (c) 2018. RFE/RL, Inc. Republished with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Washington DC 20036