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As the war in Ukraine continues, China's defense minister visits Russia, Belarus

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

China's defense minister is in Moscow for meetings with top Russian officials. His visit is timed with an annual Russian security conference and weapons fair and comes amid concerns over China's support for Russia's war in Ukraine. NPR's Charles Maynes has been following events in Moscow and joins us on the line now. Good morning, Charles.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Good morning.

FADEL: So, Charles, start with telling us what we know about the visit so far.

MAYNES: Yeah, you know, this is Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu's second visit to Russia since being named to the post earlier this year. It comes in the wake of a summit between the leaders of China and Russia in Moscow last March, so you could look at it as part of a wider effort to deepen the relationship. This morning, Li spoke at the Moscow Conference on International Security that Russia presents as an annual platform for discussion of key global security issues, albeit from a very Russian perspective. President Putin offered opening remarks at the conference, which clearly framed the discussion within Russia's own tensions with the West over Ukraine, you know, saying the U.S. and NATO were out to impose their will on the rest of the world, including the Asia Pacific, a clear pitch to China. We then heard from Russia's defense minister, Sergei Shoigu. He built on that idea, claiming that, you know, just as the West was to blame for the war in Ukraine, it was trying to provoke China over the Taiwan issue. Yet the defense minister, Li, didn't respond directly, at least not in his public remarks, other than to say that China stood for promoting peace, whether that was in Ukraine or elsewhere.

FADEL: Yeah, I mean, China has repeatedly insisted it's neutral in the war on Ukraine. It even came up with its own 10-point peace plan a few months back. And yet here's the defense minister visiting Russia again and stopping in Belarus, Russia's ally, on the trip as well. How does China reconcile this apparent tilt toward Moscow?

MAYNES: Well, it's been something of a balancing act. You know, on the one hand, China calls for respecting existing borders and sovereignty, which Kyiv, of course, supports, and it even attended a Ukraine-backed peace conference in Saudi Arabia last week, to which Russia was not invited, I might add. Yet China has also repeatedly provided Russia cover diplomatically, never denouncing Moscow's actions and endorsing the Kremlin talking point that NATO provoked the war in Ukraine. Moreover, Beijing has bailed out Russia economically. You know, as Western sanctions have deepened, it's China that's provided the biggest market for, say, Russian oil. Chinese goods have also flooded the Russian market as Western companies have packed up.

Now, to a degree, China has also helped out Russia militarily. The two countries regularly hold military exercises together in the Pacific region. But what China has not done, at least not openly, is provide military aid to Russia's war in Ukraine. So it was rather interesting to see China advertising military drones at its stand at this adjacent arms fair that accompanies this week's conference. That, along with Li's visit, will certainly feed this view among some critics that China's neutrality on the Ukraine issue, you know, is lip service at best.

FADEL: Let's talk about the war in Ukraine for a second. Russia this weekend forcibly boarded a commercial shipping vessel in the Black Sea in what appears to be Moscow enforcing a blockade of Ukrainian ports. What can you tell us about that?

MAYNES: Well, according to Russia's defense ministry, a Russian patrol ship fired automatic weapons at a vessel flying a flag from the tiny island nation of Palau after the ship's captain failed to respond to an inspection request. Russian forces later boarded the vessel and eventually allowed the ship to proceed, apparently satisfied it wasn't secretly ferrying weapons to Ukraine. But the incident follows Russia's exit from this U.N.-backed international grain deal that had ensured safe passage of food shipments from Ukraine through the Black Sea. So since then, Moscow has warned not only that any ships traveling in the region were potential military targets. This appears to be Moscow signaling that it will begin following through on that threat.

FADEL: NPR's Charles Maynes in Moscow. Thank you, Charles.

MAYNES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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