China-Russia relations: Why President Xi could turn his back on best friend Putin

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To this point, Beijing has opted not to become involved with the war between Russia and Ukraine. Emphasising its neutral status in the conflict China has abstained from two United Nations (UN) votes on Russia’s aggression, rather than joining the Kremlin’s bid to block them.

The latest of these ballots took place last Wednesday where 141 out of 193 member countries voted to demand Russia’s immediate withdrawal from Ukraine.

Although it did not take part in the vote, China’s UN ambassador Zhang Jun did make several comments which are likely to have upset senior officials in Moscow.

Mr Zhang called for respect to be paid to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.

He said: “Ukraine should become a bridge between the East and the West, not an outpost for confrontation between major powers.”

And earlier this week a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry said the Sino-Russian relationship is one of “strategic partnership”, adding the two nations are not “allies”.

However, Mr Zhang did add that Russia’s concerns about attempts by the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) to expand and invite Ukraine to join as a member need to be listened to.

So, if Mr Xi was to turn his back on Russian President Vladimir Putin, what could be his reasons for doing so?

The UK, US and a number of their allies have hit Moscow with a wide range of sanctions aimed at crippling the Russian economy.

A number of Russian banks from the main international payment system, SWIFT, have been blocked from trading.

As the world’s biggest trader, China has strong reasons to worry about being bracketed with Russia, particularly because many Chinese banks have close dealings with Russian financial companies.

The stakes are also high for Chinese companies, as 254 of them are listed on US stock exchanges.

Elsewhere, Beijing is the biggest importer of crude oil and will be feeling the full impacts of the rise in oil prices, which have touched $100 (£76) per barrel.

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After Saudi Arabia, Russia is the largest source of oil for China. In fact, China could face significant difficulties in buying Russian crude oil after Russia’s ousting from the international payments system.

However, officials between the two nations have been working on a payments process that does not require access to SWIFT for bilateral trade.

China’s stance of “neutrality” on the war also suggests that Beijing potentially wasn’t fully aware of the extent to which Mr Putin was planning to invade Ukraine.

The conflict has now been raging for more than a week with both sides claiming to have inflicted heavy casualties on each other.

Russia’s tactics of relentlessly bombing cities, such as Mariupol and Kharkiv, have drawn particular condemnation from western leaders.

On Friday the UN’s human rights office said it had confirmed 331 civilians have been killed and 675 injured in Ukraine since Russia’s invasion began on February 24.

But it’s feared the real total is much higher than the figures that have so far been verified.

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