China’s defense minister is expected to visit Russia and Belarus this week, the latest move in a delicate dance of wartime diplomacy between Moscow and Beijing.
Li Shangfu, the Chinese defense minister, will give a speech at an annual security conference in Moscow on Tuesday and hold meetings in the Russian capital, China’s defense ministry said in a statement on Monday. It added that Mr. Li would also visit Belarus — Russia’s closest ally, and Ukraine’s northern neighbor — where he would “hold meetings and talks with Belarusian state and military leaders, and visit Belarusian military units.”
Tuesday’s conference in Moscow, hosted by the Russian defense minister, Sergei K. Shoigu, appears designed to help deepen Russian ties with militaries beyond the West. It comes after President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia hosted African leaders for a summit in St. Petersburg last month, another prong of his attempt to overcome Western efforts to isolate Moscow on the international stage over its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
Russian state media reported that China was also participating in a defense industry convention taking place in Moscow this week.
In a video greeting to convention participants issued on Monday, Mr. Putin said Russia sought to cooperate militarily with all countries that “defend their national interests, their independent path of development” — the Kremlin’s typical language referring to governments that set themselves apart from the West.
China appears keen to telegraph its support for Mr. Putin even as it portrays itself as seeking peace in Ukraine and as a potential mediator. Earlier this month, China sent a representative to talks aimed at ending the war in Ukraine that were hosted by Saudi Arabia in Jeddah, even though Russia was not among the roughly 40 countries invited to attend.
Russia denounced the Jeddah talks as pointless without its own participation, characterizing the gathering as a futile effort to rally the developing world behind Kyiv. After the conference, in an apparent bid to reassure Moscow, China’s foreign ministry said its top diplomat had held a call with his Russian counterpart and told him that China would “uphold an independent and impartial stance” on Ukraine.
Western sanctions in the wake of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine 18 months ago have cemented China’s status as Russia’s most important economic and geopolitical partner. China is the top importer of Russian oil and became an even more crucial supplier of consumer goods like cars after many Western companies stopped doing business in Russia.
But the extent of Beijing’s support for Russia’s invasion is more ambiguous. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said in June that while the United States had seen no sign that China’s government had decided to send lethal aid to Russia, it was worried that private Chinese companies will provide matériel and technology that Moscow’s military could use in Ukraine.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence released a report last month that said China appeared to be supplying Russia with dual-use technology and purchasing more Russian energy.
Mr. Li’s visit comes weeks after China and Russia conducted naval drills near Alaska. While the exercises were considered provocative by some in Washington, China likened them to the navigation of U.S. naval ships in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait.
“China and Russia must increase strategic cooperation, including military cooperation,” said Song Zhongping, a commentator in Beijing who is a former military officer. “Cooperation is good for breaking the hegemony of the West.”
Mr. Li has been under U.S. sanctions since 2018 over buying Russian fighter jets and a surface-to-air missile system. China said that penalty was the reason he shunned invitations to meet with his U.S. counterpart, Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III, at a security conference in Singapore earlier this year.