Xi Jinping returns to the international stage this week as he makes his first appearance at a significant global gathering in almost three years, where the credibility of Beijing’s claims to be neutral on the Ukraine war will be put to the test.
Aside from a brief trip to central Asia in September for a regional security summit — where Xi interacted only with friends and allies including his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin — China’s president has not ventured abroad since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.
In what is also his first diplomatic foray since securing a third term in power last month, Xi will meet US president Joe Biden for their first in-person dialogue as leaders, ahead of the opening of a G20 summit a day later in Bali, Indonesia .
Putin’s last-minute decision to skip the G20 will make Xi’s mission easier by reducing much of the drama that had been anticipated at “the first global summit of the second cold war”.
But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — and his administration’s tacit support of the Kremlin despite its claims of neutrality on the conflict — will nevertheless dominate the agenda, putting China’s president in an uncomfortable position.
Xi and Putin formally hailed a “no limits” partnership between their countries when they met in Beijing in February just 20 days before Russia’s president ordered his military into Ukraine.
But according to four people briefed on the February meeting, Xi was caught off-guard by an invasion that Putin did not warn him of in advance — thus jeopardizing the safety of thousands of Chinese nationals then living in Ukraine.
“Putin didn’t tell Xi the truth,” a Chinese official told the Financial Times.
“If he had told us, we wouldn’t have been in such an awkward position,” the official added. “We had more than 6,000 Chinese nationals living in Ukraine and some of them died during the evacuation [although] we can’t make that public.”
In a speech last month, Putin said he did not tell his “close friend” Xi about the impending invasion in February. The Russian president added that the strength of the countries’ relationship was “unprecedented”.
Xi has invested too much political capital in China’s relationship with Russia to express any disquiet about the war.
The Chinese Communist party’s senior leadership, which is now stacked with Xi loyalists, values close strategic ties with Russia in the face of what it perceives as a US effort to thwart its rise with trade and technology sanctions.
It also blames Washington for frustrating Xi’s ambition to unify China and Taiwan, the self-ruled island that Beijing claims is part of its sovereign territory.
Ni Shixiong, an international relations expert at Fudan University in Shanghai, said the Chinese government had done as much as it could in signaling its displeasure with Putin’s threats concerning the possible use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine.
“China and Russia count on each other strategically,” Ni said. “China has made a concession by publicly opposing the use of nuclear weapons. We have to some degree met the demands of [the US and its allies]. It is time to see whether the US recognizes that and acts accordingly.”
Beijing has called on Washington to rescind trade and technology sanctions and has halted bilateral contact on a range of issues in the wake of US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August.
But the US president has further restricted Chinese companies’ access to critical supplies for semiconductors, a sector vital to Xi’s ambitions for self-sufficiency in next-generation technologies.
“The onus is on the Chinese side to convince the US that its position has shifted significantly away from tilting towards Russia to a more neutral position,” said Scott Kennedy, a China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who recently traveled to Beijing for informal discussions with Chinese policymakers. “Washington finds what China has done to be too little, too late.”
Since the war in Ukraine began, Xi has called or met Putin at least three times — but not spoken with Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Ukraine’s president.
Zhu Feng, a professor at Nanjing University, said Beijing would seek reciprocal concessions on trade and technology from Washington before it adjusted its position on Ukraine.
“There is not much China can do regarding Ukraine,” he said. “China has not recognized Russia’s  annexation of Crimea, not to mention eastern Ukraine.
“That’s the most China can do. Why should China help the west when the US sees China as its biggest threat?”