China’s top diplomat will visit Russia this month, according to its Foreign Ministry, in the first visit to the country from a Chinese official in that role since Moscow’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.
Wang Yi, who was named Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s top foreign policy adviser last month, will visit Russia during an eight-day international tour starting Tuesday that will also include visits to France, Italy, Hungary and a speaking engagement at the Munich Security Conference this coming weekend, which US Secretary of State Antony Blinken may also attend.
The foreign itinerary is Wang’s first after leaving his post as Foreign Minister and taking up his new role, and it could provide a test of the diplomat’s ability in balancing Beijing’s close ties with Moscow, while also attempting to boost China’s image and relations in Europe – and by extension the United States.
Wang’s attendance at the Munich Security Conference, which Blinken is expected to attend, could provide a chance for the two to meet in person for the first time since US-China tensions again flared after a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon entered American airspace late last month.
The fallout from the balloon has been swift, with Washington accusing China of overseeing an international surveillance program – and Beijing denying those claims and in turn accusing the US of “illegally” flying high-altitude balloons into its airspace more than 10 times since the start of last year. China maintains the balloon, which US forces identified and then downed earlier this month, is a civilian research aircraft accidentally blown off course.
The incident also had an immediate impact on what had been seen as an opportunity for the US and China to stabilize relations, as Blinken postponed an expected early February visit to Beijing after US officials announced they were tracking the device.
State Department spokesperson Ned Price on Monday declined to confirm that Blinken would attend the Munich conference and said there was no meeting with a Chinese official scheduled. He noted, however, that the US was “always assessing options for diplomacy,” including meeting in third countries.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin did not mention any potential meeting with Blinken when announcing Wang Yi’s travel plans during a press briefing on Monday.
Wang’s itinerary would bring an opportunity for China to work for “new progress in bilateral relations” with France, Italy and Hungary, as well as “promote China-EU strategic mutual trust,” the spokesperson said.
China’s relationship with Europe has come under significant stress in the wake of the Ukraine war. Beijing has refused to condemn the invasion outright or support numerous measures against it in the United Nations. China has also continued to partner with the Russian military during large scale exercises, while boosting its trade and fuel purchases from Moscow.
According to China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Wang’s visit to Moscow will provide an opportunity for China and Russia to continue to develop their strategic partnership and “exchange views” on “international and regional hotspot issues of shared interest” – a catch-all phrase often used to allude to topics including the war in Ukraine.
The Foreign Ministry did not specify whether Wang would meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“China is ready to take this visit as an opportunity and work with Russia to promote steady growth of bilateral relations in the direction identified by the two heads of state, defend the legitimate rights and interests of both sides, and play an active role for world peace,” spokesman Wang Wenbin said.
Wang’s visit may also foreshadow a state visit by Chinese leader Xi Jinping to Moscow later this year. Putin extended an invitation to Xi during a customary end-of-year call between the two leaders, but China’s Foreign Ministry has yet to confirm any plans.