China’s number three leader to meet Russia’s Putin in most senior face-to-face since Ukraine invasion: state media

Li Zhanshu, a member of the Chinese Communist Party’s Politburo Standing Committee and the country’s top legislator, will meet Putin during the Eastern Economic Forum, Russian state news agency Tass reported.

Li is expected to attend the forum as part of a 10-day overseas tour with stops in Russia, South Korea, Mongolia and Nepal starting Wednesday, Chinese state media reported this week. That trip also makes Li the most senior Chinese official to leave the country since the start of the pandemic, which has seen China close borders and limit in-person diplomacy.

The expected meeting underlines the importance of the Russian relationship for China, even in the face of international blow back against Moscow after its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine earlier this year.

It also comes weeks before a critical five-yearly political meeting in Beijing, where Xi Jinping is expected to break with tradition and assume a third term in power, cementing his role as China’s most powerful leader in decades.

Moscow and Beijing have emerged as closer partners in recent years as both face tensions with the West, with Xi and Putin declaring the two countries had a “no limit” partnership weeks before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Beijing has since refused to condemn the aggression, instead repeatedly laying blame for the conflict on NATO and the United States.

The two countries have signaled that their partnership remains strong, with China’s Foreign Ministry saying last month that the two sides agreed to “deepen practical cooperation” during a meeting between Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov on the sidelines of a regional gathering in Phnom Penh.

Ahead of his expected visit to Russia, Li made similar comments during a meeting last week with Russian Ambassador to China Andrey Ivanovich Denisov in Beijing. There Li, who is also chairman of China’s Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, stressed the two nations were “headed toward the right direction under the strategic guidance of the two leaders, with firm mutual support and constant political trust,” according to Chinese state media.

It’s unclear what Putin and Li will discuss during the expected meeting at the forum, which focuses on building investment ties between Russia’s eastern region and global investors and where Putin will deliver an address Wednesday.

Their meeting comes on the heels of an announcement from Russian energy giant Gazprom on Tuesday, which said it had signed an agreement to start switching payments for gas supplies to China to yuan and rubles instead of dollars. China’s energy imports from Russia have hit record highs for some products this year, as Western countries rolled out sanctions against Moscow and Chinese buyers swept up discounted fuel.

Other forum attendees expected to meet Putin include Chairman of Myanmar’s State Administration Council and Commander-in-Chief of Myanmar Defense Services Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Mongolian Prime Minister Luvsannamsrain Oyun-Erdene, according to Tass.

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