China throws Putin another sanction-busting lifeline: Xi Jinping lifts wheat import restrictions

China has thrown Russia’s Vladimir Putin another sanction-busting lifeline by lifting wheat import restrictions in an economic boost to Moscow. 

President Xi Jinping has backed keeping China fully open to wheat imports from Russia in spite of sweeping sanctions imposed by the West in a bid to stop Putin’s war in Ukraine. 

Imports had been restricted in recent months over concern over Russia’s measures to prevent plant diseases, particularly in agricultural crops.  

The move to keep the market open was reportedly part of a deal between Moscow and Beijing concluded earlier this month and is the latest sign of growing ties between the two states. 

Russia, the world’s largest exporter of wheat, exported more than 30 million tonnes of the product from January through November last year. 

The same year, Moscow sent 9.8 per cent of its total agricultural exports, including cereals, fishery products, meat and dairy to China.  

It comes after experts predicted yesterday that China could buy more Russian energy and lend Moscow cash to help Putin weather sanctions imposed over his invasion of Ukraine. 

Mr Putin’s decision to launch military action against Ukraine will result in the US, UK and other NATO allies rolling out more punitive measures against Russia.   

China has thrown Russia’s Vladimir Putin another sanction-busting lifeline by lifting wheat import restrictions in an economic boost to Moscow

President Xi Jinping has backed keeping China fully open to wheat imports from Russia in spite of sweeping sanctions imposed by the West in a bid to stop Putin's war in Ukraine

President Xi Jinping has backed keeping China fully open to wheat imports from Russia in spite of sweeping sanctions imposed by the West in a bid to stop Putin’s war in Ukraine

A statement from China’s General Administration of Customs said Russia had also agreed to take new measures to tackle the phytosanitary problems. 

China initially started important wheat on a large scale, with the first order around 667 metric tonnes, in October. 

Experts yesterday said they believed China was likely to help Russia ‘behind the scenes’, with the level of support from Beijing potentially becoming an ‘influential factor in shaping an evolving crisis’. 

However, China will need to ‘walk a fine line’ as it tries to avoid damaging its links to the West, with protecting trade likely to be a key priority.  

China and Russia have moved closer in recent years as both have faced rising tensions with the West. 

Mr Putin visited Beijing at the beginning of February for the start of the Winter Olympics. 

He and President Xi Jinping issued a statement at the time which declared the ‘friendship between the two States has no limits’. 

China backed Russia in opposing NATO expansion as the two nations accused the US, UK and others of adopting ‘ideologized Cold War approaches’ to international relations.   

The statement committed the pair to strengthening foreign policy coordination and to defend common interests. 

However, China has not publicly backed Russia over the Ukraine crisis, instead urging ‘all parties’ to ‘exercise restraint’. 

Beijing has said the situation in Ukraine is the ‘result of many complex factors’ and ‘China always makes its own position, according to the merits of the matter itself’.  

Following the invasion of Ukraine, China is unlikely to publicly support Mr Putin’s actions but it is also unlikely to criticise the Russian President. 

Experts believe China will help Russia as sanctions imposed by the West begin to bite.

That could mean Chinese banks lending money to Moscow and Beijing buying more Russian oil and gas. 

Tom Rafferty, a Beijing-based analyst with the Economist Intelligence Unit, told the Financial Times: ‘The level of Chinese support for Russian actions could be an influential factor in shaping an evolving crisis.’ 

The move to keep the wheat market open was reportedly part of a deal between Moscow and Beijing concluded earlier this month and is the latest sign of growing ties between the two states

The move to keep the wheat market open was reportedly part of a deal between Moscow and Beijing concluded earlier this month and is the latest sign of growing ties between the two states

Jakub Jakobowski, a senior fellow with the China programme at the Eastern Studies Centre in Warsaw, told the newspaper: ‘Unless the West puts a really tangible cost on China, China will still help Russia behind the scenes.’

However, many believe China will want to avoid damaging its economic interests which are linked to the West and that is likely to temper its support for Moscow.

Noah Barkin, an expert on Europe-China relations at US research firm Rhodium Group, told Bloomberg that Beijing ‘will have to walk a fine line in this crisis’. 

He said: ‘It will want to avoid openly criticising Russia’s actions in Ukraine, while affirming its support for the principles of territorial integrity and non-interference. The hotter the conflict in Ukraine gets, the more difficult it will be for Beijing to walk this line.’ 

Meanwhile, Professor Steve Tsang, director at the School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas) China Institute, told the i newspaper that China is ‘not keen to see a war over Ukraine, as it has strong economic and other ties with Ukraine’. 

Rising tensions with the West are expected to quicken Russia’s ongoing pivot to the East when it comes to selling its oil and gas.  

Russian energy firms agreed new long-term supply deals with China at the start of February.

Gazprom signed its second long-term gas deal with China which will see the company deliver 10 billion cubic metres per year over a 25 year period via a new pipeline. 

Russian gas supplies to China are reportedly set to hit 48 billion cubic metres a year but talks are ongoing over the development of a third route which would add another 50 billion cubic metres. 

The oil company Rosneft agreed a deal to supply 100 million tonnes of crude oil to China within a decade, replacing an existing deal which is set to expire.  

The expectation is that China’s demand for Russian energy will now surge in the coming years while European demand is likely to fall. 

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