April 20, 2023 Special Dispatch No. 10571

Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu's Visit To Russia Buoys Russian Optimism

April 20, 2023
Russia, China | Special Dispatch No. 10571

The visit to Russia by Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu that began on April 16, 2023, was, to a large extent, evocative of the visit made by China's President Xi Jinping less than a month earlier.[1]It began with a sit-down with Russian President Vladimir Putin and took place in an atmosphere of great positivity. One senior journalist described it as part of a continued drift towards alliance. The consensus on the visit by the Russian media was that while there were no dramatic breakthroughs, the growing contacts and the converging interests of the two countries made an alliance, or something even better, inevitable.

MEMRI's review of the Li visit follows below:

Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu and Vladimir Putin confer (Source:

The visit began with the following exchange between Putin and his Chinese guest.

President of Russia Vladimir Putin: "Comrade Minister, I am delighted to see you.

"You have arrived in Russia following the visit to our country by our great friend, my friend, President of the People's Republic of China, Comrade Xi Jinping. I would like to emphasize once again that this was a very productive visit. Of course, we discussed military-to-military cooperation, among other topics.

"Our two countries have maintained positive momentum in expanding our economic, social, cultural, and educational ties. We have also been proactive in our military-to-military relations by regularly sharing actionable insights and cooperating on defense matters. We also hold joint military exercises in various theatres of operation, including in the Far East, Europe, at sea, on land, as well as in the air. I do believe that this constitutes a major track for strengthening the trust-based strategic relationship between the Russian Federation and the People's Republic of China.

"We are glad to see you. I know that you have a packed and quite extensive program for your visit. I am certain that your visit will be very effective.

"Welcome to Russia."

Li Shangfu in his effusive reply followed the path of Xi's remarks claiming that Russia was his first foreign port of call following his naming as defense minister and personally singling out Putin's contribution to the growth of Sino-Russian relations:

"Mr. President,

"Thank you so much for finding the time to have this meeting with me. I know that today is a holiday [Russian Easter], but still you have found the time to receive me. This is a great honor for me.

"First of all, allow me to convey to you the warmest greetings and the best wishes on behalf of Chinese President Xi Jinping.

"In 2017, a military delegation visited Russia to take part in the meeting of the Commission for Military-Technical Cooperation, and I was a member of that body at the time. Today, I am back in Russia, which gives me great joy.

"As of late, military and military-technical cooperation between Russia and China is developing very well. This is making a major contribution to maintaining global and regional security.

"I have arrived in Russia today. There are plans to implement your agreements with President of China Xi Jinping, reached during his March visit to Moscow. This is my first foreign visit after I became Defense Minister of China. I specially chose Russia, so as to emphasize the special nature and strategic significance of our bilateral relations.

"Our countries established bilateral relations over 70 years ago. Relations between our armed forces are growing stronger with every passing day. Naturally, the diplomacy of leaders plays a key role here. You set strategic goals for our development. In addition, your personal friendship with the President of China plays a major role in this process, and everyone in China knows this.

"According to our estimates, you have held 40 meetings with the President of China. In 2013, he visited Russia for the first time after becoming President of China. Ten years on, he arrived in Russia again on his first foreign visit after being re-elected as the head of the Chinese state. The talks you held had a very packed agenda and charted the main areas of our future cooperation.

"We have a very strong relationship that goes beyond the Cold War-era military and political alliances. This relationship hinges on the principles of non-alignment and non-confrontation with third parties, and these principles are very stable. Under your strategic leadership and that of the President of China, we are actively developing cooperation in practical spheres. Our relations have already entered a new era.

"For 13 years, China has been Russia's main trade partner. While developing our relations, we realize the tremendous responsibility assumed by our states, especially in light of the fact that we are now seeing the most profound changes of the past 100 years. We are standing shoulder to shoulder and working to improve the wellbeing of our peoples. We are also mindful of the fact that the global economy is recovering very slowly, and that there is great demand for peace and peaceful relations between countries.

"Mr. Xi Jinping has advanced several major initiatives, including a civilizational initiative that has to do with global development. To the best of our knowledge, the Russian side has a positive opinion of these initiatives. Cooperation continues to develop at all levels, and we will continue this cooperation in the interests of the entire world's development and prosperity."

Vladimir Putin: "Thank you very much, and please convey my best wishes to President Xi Jinping."[2]

The cordiality continued after Li's meeting with his Russian counterpart Sergey Shoigu, where the Chinese guest promised to take military and military-technical cooperation to a new level.

"The armed forces of China and Russia will definitely implement the agreements reached by the heads of state and promote military cooperation and military-technical cooperation and military trade between China and Russia. We will definitely take them to a new level."[3]

Shoigu, in his opening remarks credited the bilateral relationship with having a stabilizing effect on international affairs:

"The coordination of our efforts in the international arena has a stabilizing effect on the global situation and helps reduce the potential for conflict."

Shoigu also believed it important that Moscow and Beijing "equally assess the essence of the ongoing transformation of the global geopolitical landscape."[4]

Another highlight of the visit was the signing of a memorandum of understanding between the military academy of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces and the National Defense Academy of the People's Liberation Army of China. The ceremony took place during talks between Shoigu and Li Shangfu. After the talks, the members of the Chinese delegation visited several facilities of the National Defense Control Center of the Russian Federation.[5]

For all the show of good feelings, both Xi Jinping's and Li Shangfu's visits did not produce a statement that China had moved from benevolent neutrality in Russia's conflict with Ukraine and was prepared to help arm Russia that is currently resorting to using vintage Cold War-era weaponry in the war. Russian commentators, however, reassured their readers that things were moving in the right direction.

A column by Moskovskiy Komsomolets senior columnist Mikhail Rostovsky that bore the dramatic title "China Drifts Towards Military Support for Russia: Chinese Defense Minister's Sensational Visit" illustrated this tendency. In contrast to the headline, the article's content was more restrained.

Rostovsky cited the Chinese Defense Ministry communique:

"'Over recent years, under the strategic leadership of the two leaders [Putin and Xi], relations between the armed forces of China and Russia are being maintained at a high operative level, new progress has been made in strategic communications and practical cooperation.' Every line of this official communication on part of the Chinese Defense Ministry concerning the visit of its chief to the Russian capital sounds like a challenge to the West and a rather real slap in the face to official Kyiv.

"Naturally, there is quite a difference between the words: 'sound like' and 'actually represents.' Minister Li Shangfu's trip to Moscow should hardly be perceived as a turning point, a landmark that will be followed by China's abandoning its official neutrality in the Ukrainian crisis. But the symbolic significance of that trip is also difficult to diminish."

While Putin and Xi and a few others know the true details of Sino-Russian cooperation, observers must judge by circumstantial evidence, but this evidence all trends in a positive direction:

"What lies behind these details is a matter of circumstantial evidence. The visit of the Chinese defense minister, who has just been appointed to his post, without any economic necessity, comes as one of such indication."

While Li Shangfu does not occupy the same position in the Chinese hierarchy as Shoigu does in Russia, "A friendly visit to Moscow by the holder of such a title still comes as a very powerful political signal. What exactly is the encoded meaning in this signal and how events will develop further remains entirely a question for the future. China's drift towards military support for Russia may remain just that – a drift. But that does not make what is happening any less important, interesting, or meaningful."[6]

Growing Defense Ties

Russian daily Kommersant foreign affairs analyst Sergei Strokan claimed that Sino-Russian military relations were becoming progressively stronger and this momentum had stalled due to the fighting in Ukraine.

"...Prior to the start of the Russian special military operation in Ukraine, Russian-Chinese exercises were held annually, while cooperation between Moscow and Beijing in this area has developed steadily over the recent years. So, in August 2021, six months before the military operation in Ukraine, Russia and China held joint military exercises 'West/Interaction-2021' in the northwest of China, at the Qingtongxia training ground. A feature of the maneuvers, in which about 13 thousand military personnel and almost 500 pieces of equipment took part, was not only their scale. Then, for the first time in history, Russian participants were given the opportunity to use Chinese weapons during the exercises.

"However, the peak of Russian-Chinese maneuvers on the eve of the special operation in Ukraine came in the fall of 2021, when in October, the Chinese Navy conducted joint maneuvers with the Russian Navy in the western Pacific Ocean. Then five Chinese and five Russian warships passed, for the first time, through the Tsugaru Strait, which separates the Japanese islands of Honshu and Hokkaido. After that, in November of the same year, the aircraft of the strategic aviation of Russia and long-range aviation of the PRC conducted joint patrols over the waters of the Japan and East China Seas.

"A year and a half later, when the United States and its allies, both in NATO and in the Asian region, resorted to proclaiming Russia as an 'immediate threat' and China as a 'strategic challenge,' Moscow and Beijing were prompted to look for new forms of interaction. This will be the main topic of talks by Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu in Moscow.

"The West's support for Ukraine in its conflict with Russia and the ever more active consideration of military scenarios of confrontation with China over Taiwan are forcing Moscow and Beijing to accelerate their movement towards each other..."[7]

Chinese and Russian naval commander meet during joint exercises (Source:

Kirill Kotkov, the head of the Center for the Study of the Countries of the Far East, predicted in an interview that China could begin providing indirect military assistance to Russia.

Kotkov speculated that Putin and Li Shangfu had discussed military assistance to Russia from China.

"The visit of the Minister of Defense of China is a direct consequence of the visit by the leader of the PRC, Xi Jinping. Both sides agreed to increase cooperation, including in the military sphere. At the same time, China is unlikely to provide military assistance to Russia. This is not beneficial for them, because the Chinese economy is strongly tied to the economy of Western countries. If China begins to provide such assistance, it will do so through the sale of dual-use goods, or through third countries – North Korea. As for Russia, in the current situation, we will ask for everything that is lacking in terms of the military," Kotkov stated.

In return, Kotkov believed that Russia would provide verbal support to China on the Taiwan issue. Kotkov warned his readers not to expect an imminent war between China and the U.S. over the island that would relieve pressure on Russia. "The Taiwan issue is China's internal affair. Russia has repeatedly emphasized this, so the PRC will resolve this issue, but only when it is beneficial for it. Unless, of course, the United States provokes China into an armed conflict."[8]

Political scientist Denis Denisov writing for Izvestiya claimed that the enhanced military relations was a natural byproduct of a convergence of views on international relations:

"This visit came as yet another demonstration of the strategic partnership between Russia and China in all areas of interaction, including security. Both Russia and China share an identical understanding of the need to build a multipolar world, in which not only the stance of one particular country will be taken into account, but also that of other world leaders (now we can definitely use these words). This confirms once again that in the current circumstances, Russo-Chinese cooperation is taking on a new dimension, due to the fact that it will be easier for the two countries to achieve the intended results in terms of strength and power.

"One should not bear any illusion that this will happen quickly, overnight, or that other leaders of the international community will agree to such a scenario. Meanwhile, it must be stated that the tighter the relationship between the two states, the closer the necessary result will be.

"We know that talks about adding a security component to such bodies as the SCO [Shanghai Cooperation Organization] and BRICS have been going on for a long time. This was done mostly at the expert level. But meetings like the PRC Defense minister's visit are just symbolic of the fact that in the near future there is likely to be a window of opportunity to discuss such issues at the executive level.

"A scrutiny of the Pacific Fleet readiness and snap exercises demonstrate that Russia is prepared to face all threats on its territory, including on its eastern flank. It's a demonstration that in the event of an escalation, Russia will defend its national interests.

"In today's world, landmark military-political events do not just happen on their own. In this regard, it is symbolic that these two events, i.e., the visit of the Chinese Defense Minister and the surprise inspection of the Pacific Fleet occurred within the same time period. One can assume it was a demonstration to the countries of the collective West that in this complex geopolitical situation Russia is ready to support China.

"Let's also keep in mind joint exercises of Russia, China, and South Africa conducted in February. They came as a natural extension of the strategic partnership that has been observed in Russo-Chinese relations. The world's geopolitical situation has changed greatly in recent years. Consequently, changes are also happening in the priority areas of interaction, including between Beijing and Moscow.

"The exercises once again demonstrate that Russo-Chinese relations are being filled with new meanings. Joint exercises have been held before, but in the current situation (when the U.S. and the collective West have taken a radical stance towards Russia) these events take on a new significance.  There is an alternative pole [of power] in world politics, long established in Southeast Asia, which possesses an alternative view on the global geopolitical processes, as well as on the processes happening in different regions. No one has forgotten about the problem of Taiwan...

"The February 24, 2022 starting point [the start of Russia's invasion of Ukraine] has changed the overall global geopolitical picture and forced us, on the one hand, to reconsider our priorities and, on the other hand, to develop the existing strategic directions more diligently. In this context, one of the most important areas is the development of bilateral relations between Russia and China. It, however, is important for both sides...

"This illustrious multipolarity is essentially in the two countries' hands. Due to the interest in a multipolar world that is more just than the current one, a further integration of Russia and China will continue. It is happening in the political sphere as well."[9]

Denis Denisov (Source:

Vladimir Nezhdanov, an expert at the Institute of Contemporary International Affairs of the Russian Foreign Ministry's Diplomatic Academy, noted that the timing of the visit coincides with a massive snap inspection of Russia's Pacific Fleet. This represented defiance of the West and presaged the strengthening of military cooperation between China and Russia. Nezhdanov pointed out that Li was already targeted by U.S. sanctions for promoting the purchase of Russian S-400 anti-aircraft systems and Su-35 aircraft.[10]

The West Will Not Drive A Wedge Between Russia And China

Oleg Karpovich, Vice-Rector of the Russian Foreign Ministry's diplomatic academy, claimed that the visit proved that the West will not be able to drive a wedge in relations between Russia and China:

"...Such maneuvers are doomed to failure. The recent summit of the heads of Russia and China in Moscow, Vladimir Putin's meeting with Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu on April 16, as well as numerous visits by representatives of the Chinese leadership to our country, clearly demonstrate the intention of the two states to develop the closest and most effective partnership. We, like our friends from the Middle Kingdom, are well aware of the essence of the combinations launched at the suggestion of Washington.

"Attempts to drive a wedge between Moscow and Beijing were often made previously, after the end of the Cold War, but each time ended in failure. Historical experience informs both countries' leaders and peoples what excessive trust in Western proposals and promises leads to. Today, the Russian-Chinese partnership is rapidly turning into a dominant force in world politics, and even the most cunning efforts to retard this movement can hardly prove fruitful for their architects.

"The force of historical processes is inexorable. The crisis of the Western-centric world order seems to be entering its final phase. And in this light, Macron's statements [during his visit to China] should be seen as a collective cry of desperation from the American-European elites, who are finally beginning to realize what a political fiasco they have led their countries into. But the Rubicon has been crossed, and it is time for the French president and his senior Washington comrades to admit that there will be no going back. Together with China and other rapidly rising powers, we have learned from the mistakes of the past and are ready to advance, ever forward, without wasting time exchanging pleasantries with yesterday's so-called Western partners."[11]

International affairs journalist Andrei Kuzmak returned to the theme of Russia and China collaborating to bury American dominated unipolarity. Unipolarity would be replaced by something more flexible and universal.

"The visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to Moscow at the end of March marked not only the beginning of a new era of Russo-Chinese relations, but also drew a line under five decades of a unipolar world. Now such a statement is being made not only in Moscow and Beijing; its veracity is coming to be recognized in the West.

"The 'old' Washington elites and many respected Western political scientists use Cold War-era concepts and even the era's terminology. That's why they dubbed the Russo-Chinese alliance as a 'bloc' or an 'axis,' and are puzzled by the convergence of such civilizationally dissimilar nations, predicting its structural crisis. True, within the logic of almost half a century of 'confrontation between systems,' there cannot be two leaders in a single alliance. And it's exactly the leader who sets the 'rules' by which his 'allies' agree to abide.

"However, this approach is flawed, primarily because the level of interaction between Russia and China, while comprehensive, is far more flexible than any other existing format of relations between the world powers. It is based on a common conceptual vision of the model of a just world order and the new system of international relations as its component parts.

"One of its main elements is respect for the principle of 'indivisible security,' without oaths of 'eternal friendship' or ideological clichés. This admits the possibility, even at the highest level of engagement, of remaining independent in making geopolitical decisions, such as in the case of the Ukraine crisis or the Taiwan issue. Meanwhile, such flexibility seriously expands the potential of structurally complex integration bodies, such as the SCO or BRICS.

"It should be noted that nowhere in Russian, or Chinese official documents is this cooperation between the two countries referred to as an 'alliance,' namely a format that requires of its parties to fulfill 'allied' (read: military) obligations. Be that as it may, this fact is not an obstacle to the rapidly increasing cooperation in the defense, military-industrial complex, and intelligence sectors.

"...The large-scale geopolitical changes accelerated by the Ukraine crisis have, in a sense, prepared China to change its foreign policy strategy. The conservative model introduced almost 40 years ago, according to which the PRC remained in the shadow of global events, preferring economic influence over any other, has become a thing of the past.

"Beijing has started to act, what's interesting is that it took a very unaccustomed proactive leadership role. In response to the proverbial [Western] 'rules-based peace,' China responded with the Global Civilization Initiative, i.e., practically a project of the new world order system, in which ideology is reduced to oblivion. This approach was realized in practice in China's peacekeeping policy in the Middle East, whose effectiveness (that so greatly surprised the world), was facilitated by the support of Russia."[12]


[1] See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 10538, March 2023.

[2], April 16, 2023.

[3], April 18, 2023.

[4], April 18, 2023.

[5], April 18, 2023.

[6], April 14, 2023.

[7], April 16, 2023.

[8], April 17, 2023.

[9], April 17, 2023.

[10], April 17, 2023.

[11], April 18, 2023.

[12], April 17, 2023.

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