HONG KONG — Russian President Vladimir Putin praised his “dear friend” Xi Jinping on Wednesday as the two leaders spoke at an international conference in Beijing, where the Chinese president laid out his vision of an alternative world order less dominated by the United States and its allies.
Their appearance together came as President Joe Biden arrived in Tel Aviv in a show of support for Israel following a devastating and coordinated terrorist attack by Hamas militants on kibbutzim, music festivals and city streets on Oct. 7, and ahead of an expected Israeli ground assault in the Gaza Strip, a Palestinian enclave that Hamas controls.
Biden said he was “outraged” by the blast at a hospital in Gaza City on Tuesday that is estimated to have killed hundreds of people and for which Israel and Hamas have blamed each other. The blast has set off protests across the Middle East and threatens to derail diplomatic efforts by the U.S. and others to end the conflict between Israel and Hamas, which as of Wednesday had killed more than 3,400 people in Gaza and 1,400 people in Israel.
Putin called the hospital blast a “terrible event” and a “disaster.”
“I really hope that this will be a signal that this conflict should be ended as quickly as possible,” he said at a news conference. “In any case, it is necessary to work towards a possibility of starting some contacts and negotiations.”
The Chinese Foreign Ministry said Beijing was “shocked by and strongly condemns” the hospital explosion, expressing condolences to the victims and calling for an immediate ceasefire and the protection of civilians.
Putin also said he was optimistic about the future of the China-Russia relationship and that conflicts like his war in Ukraine and the Israel-Hamas war only made it stronger.
“All these external factors are common threats, and they strengthen Russian-Chinese cooperation,” he said.
Strained Western ties
Representatives from more than 130 mostly developing countries, including heads of state, gathered at the imposing Great Hall of the People on Tiananmen Square for a two-day forum marking the 10th anniversary of Xi’s signature Belt and Road initiative.
Under the program, China has financed major infrastructure projects around the world in an effort to strengthen relations with Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East, though in some cases they have been criticized as saddling low-income countries with excessive debt.
In a speech at the opening ceremony on Wednesday, Xi said the Belt and Road initiative had “established a new framework for international cooperation.”
He also warned against efforts by the U.S. and other countries to reduce their dependence on China, the world’s second-largest economy, by “decoupling.” Beijing has objected to measures it sees as aimed at containing its rise such as U.S. export controls on semiconductor chips, which the Commerce Department said on Tuesday it was expanding for national security reasons.
“Viewing others’ development as a threat or taking economic interdependence as a risk will not make one’s own life better or speed up one’s development,” Xi said, as Putin looked on from the front row.
Speaking after Xi, Putin praised the Belt and Road initiative as “truly a global plan” that is “aimed at creating more equitable, multipolar world relations.”
Most Western European countries and other U.S. allies kept their representation at the Belt and Road forum to a minimum, including Italy, which looks set to formally withdraw from the initiative. The Italian ambassador to China was one of several European officials who walked out while Putin was speaking in protest of the Ukraine war.
China’s ties with the West have been strained by its economic and political support for Russia in that war, which Beijing refrains from calling an invasion. During a meeting with Putin on Wednesday that lasted about three hours, Xi said that China supports Russia in safeguarding its national sovereignty, security and development interests, according to a readout published by the Chinese Foreign Ministry that did not mention Ukraine.
The war between Israel and Hamas has only deepened Western disagreement with China and Russia, both of which have avoided condemning Hamas and say the fundamental solution to the conflict is the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.
In remarks before their meeting on Wednesday, Xi and Putin emphasized the importance of their countries’ strong relationship.
“Both countries have deepened our mutual political trust and maintained strategic coordination in a close and effective manner,” Xi said, noting that trade between the two countries reached a record $190 billion last year.
“In the current difficult conditions, close foreign policy coordination is especially necessary,” Putin told Xi.
The two longtime leaders, who declared a “no limits” partnership between their countries last year at a meeting in Beijing weeks before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, have met more than 40 times in the last 10 years and frequently mention their friendship.
Putin’s trip to China is his first outside the former Soviet Union since the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for him in March that accused him of illegally sending children to Russia from Ukraine.
Vietnamese state media reported Tuesday that during the forum Putin also accepted an invitation from Vietnam’s president to visit Hanoi “soon.”
While in Beijing, Putin also met with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, the only European Union government leader to attend the forum, in one of the few meetings Putin has had with any European leader since Russia invaded Ukraine in February last year.