China sends top envoy Wang Yi to Russia for security talks

China's newly appointed Foreign Minister Wang Yi attends a meeting with his Turkish counterpart , in Ankara, on July 26, 2023
Russian media says Mr Wang's trip will lay the ground for Vladimir Putin to make a landmark visit to Beijing

China's top diplomat Wang Yi is visiting Russia as it seeks continued support for its war on Ukraine.

Any bid to end the war must take into account Moscow's interests, Mr Wang and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov were quoted as saying after a meeting.

A close ally of Moscow, Beijing is accused of supporting Russia indirectly during the war, which it denies.

Russian media said Mr Wang's trip would also pave the way for President Vladimir Putin's visit to China soon.

This comes after Mr Putin met North Korea's Kim Jong Un amid US fears they could strike an arms deal.

China's foreign ministry said Mr Wang is in Russia for four days for "strategic security consultations".

After Monday's talks, the Russian foreign ministry said he and Mr Lavrov discussed the Ukraine war "and noted the futility of attempts to settle the crisis without taking account of Russia's interests and, more particularly, its participation".

China has put out its own Ukraine peace plan, unveiled during a whirlwind of diplomacy undertaken by Mr Wang earlier this year when he last visited Moscow and met Mr Putin.

While China is keen on seeing an end to the Ukraine war so it can repair its relations with Europe, it also wants to "separate that outcome from determining who is to blame for the war", since it is sympathetic to Russia, noted Rorry Daniels, managing director of the Asia Society Policy Institute.

China has been accused by the US of aiding Russia economically and supplying key technology since the war began.

A US intelligence report released in July said Beijing is "pursuing a variety of economic support mechanisms for Russia that mitigate both the impact of Western sanctions and export controls".

It cited China's increased purchases of Russian energy exports, the increased use of its currency in transactions with Russia, and the "probable" supply of dual technology - items which could be deployed for both civilian and military purposes such as drones - for use in Ukraine.

China has consistently denied such allegations and insists it maintains an objective position on the war.

Earlier this month Mr Putin said he expected to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping, but did not say when.

Some observers believe he is likely to attend the Belt and Road Forum next month.

He has not travelled abroad since the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for him in March over war crimes in Ukraine. Mr Putin last ventured onto foreign soil in December 2022 when he visited Belarus and Kyrgyzstan.

"Inviting Putin to China is a way to show support for Russia but that support must also be framed as a legitimate attempt to get Russia to the negotiating table so that China doesn't worsen its position with the Europeans," said Ms Daniels.

A handout photo made available by the Russian Foreign Ministry's press service shows Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (2-L) speaking with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (2-R) during their meeting in Moscow, Russia, 18 September 2023.
Mr Lavrov and Mr Wang held talks on Monday on the Ukraine war

Mr Wang's visit comes as Mr Kim wrapped up his highly controversial visit to Russia.

On Monday he was heading home with presents including a Russian-made rifle, a cosmonaut's glove, a bulletproof vest, a fur hat and military drones, according to Russian media.

The US alleged Mr Kim's visit was to discuss the selling of North Korean arms to Russia. Moscow is thought to be facing a shortage of weapons and ammunition.

Russia and North Korea have said they talked about "military co-operation" and aid for Pyongyang's satellite programme.

When asked about Mr Kim's trip last week, China's foreign ministry declined to comment saying it was "something between their two countries".

Kim Jong Un shakes hands with Russia's Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, as he visits Vladivostok, Russia, September 16, 2023
North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un headed home with gifts including a Russian winter furry hat

But some analysts believe that any mutual North Korea-Russia support is happening with China's knowledge or even implicit consent, given Beijing's close ties with the other two countries.

Those relationships extend beyond socialist ideology and their shared distrust of the US and the West. Beijing has long been Pyongyang's economic lifeline through trade, and in the past year it has started becoming Moscow's as well through ramped-up purchases of Russian oil and gas.

"Whatever's happening with Russia and North Korea cannot be happening without China knowing about it... I don't think they would cooperate militarily without Beijing's approval," said Alexander Korolev, an expert on China-Russia relations with the University of New South Wales in Australia.

China could even see North Korea as a useful proxy to help Russia in the Ukraine war, he added.

"Simply by greenlighting North Korea to have military cooperation with Russia is a way to help Russia with very low reputational costs. It could blame North Korea's rogue regime [whose actions have] nothing to do with them. It would be a smart move, if this is the case." he said.

Mr Wang's visit to Russia also comes a day after he met US national security adviser Jake Sullivan in Malta. Besides the US-China relationship, the two men had also discussed regional security and the Ukraine war, according to statements put out by the US and China.

While the US may be talking to China to put pressure on North Korea to stop any cooperation, it may be unlikely China would do this, said Dr Korolev.

"If China wanted to play ball the American way, they had more than a year" to stop the war but they have not, he said.

Additional reporting by Evgeny Pudovkin of BBC Monitoring.