Why China’s Xi will emerge from Russia with love this week

Why China’s Xi will emerge from Russia with love this week

Chinese President Xi Jinping is in Russia for a three-day visit. (File/AFP)

Russian President Vladimir Putin hosts his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping on Wednesday for a three-day visit, reflecting their burgeoning bilateral dialogue. Yet it is not just this growing warmth driving relations, but also the current chilliness of their ties with the US.

On China’s side, for instance, relations with Washington have become increasingly frosty following the apparent breakdown of high-level trade talks last month. This follows both the decision of both sides to ramp up sanctions after US President Donald Trump accused Beijing of “breaking the deal” by seeking to roll back what he claims were previous Chinese commitments in areas such as state subsidies.

At the same time, the US-Russia relationship remains semi-frozen too. At last month’s meetings between US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Putin and his Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, the mood music was subdued, albeit with both sides pledging to work with each other where possible.

It is in this context that both Beijing and Moscow wish to work together not just to further bilateral interests, but also hedge against the prospects of a continuing chill in US ties under the Trump presidency. In Russia’s case, however, it is not just the US, but also other key Western powers, with which its relations are significantly strained right now. This follows years of sanctions over Ukraine and Crimea, concerns over Moscow’s alleged extensive meddling in a suite of western election, and the attempted murder in England of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, which has been widely blamed on Moscow.

This reflects the fact that some two decades after first assuming power, Putin has restored Russia’s geopolitical prominence, including through gambits such as the annexation of Crimea and the Syria intervention, and this has – so far – played well domestically for him. Yet this has been mirrored by frostier ties with leaders in multiple key countries, including in much of Europe. Putin has therefore decided to increasingly assert Russian power in other areas of the globe from Africa to Asia-Pacific. Take the example of Japan, where he has met frequently with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to try to foster joint economic activities in the disputed islands off Japan’s northernmost main island of Hokkaido.

Yet it is Xi with whom the Russian president has formed the strongest relationship. This week’s state visit, following quickly on the heels of Putin’s to China in April, comes as Xi asserted last year that bilateral relations are at “the highest-level, most profound and strategically most significant relationship between major countries in the world” and also praised Putin by stating that he “is my best, most intimate friend.” 

Perhaps the most cited area of these warmer ties, with both Xi and Putin expected to be in power well into the 2020s, is on the political and security front

Andrew Hammond

Perhaps the most cited area of these warmer ties, with both Xi and Putin expected to be in power well into the 2020s, is on the political and security front. For instance, last summer’s joint “war games” in the Trans-Baikal region in Russia’s Far East involved some 300,000 troops. 

However, outside of the political and security domain, China and Russia also enjoy an extensive economic dialogue which has deepened since Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and will be showcased at this week’s St Petersburg International Economic Forum, which Xi and Putin will attend. 

There are bilateral plans for numerous cooperation projects with China, including a new method of inter-bank transfers and a joint credit agency that seeks to create a shared financial and economic infrastructure, which will allow them to function independently of Western-dominated financial institutions. China and Russia are also among the states involved in creating alternative forums to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, including the New Development Bank, which will finance infrastructure and other projects in the BRICS states.

Moreover, in the energy sector, the two states have signed a $400-billion supply deal that will see a 3,200-kilometer natural gas pipeline from eastern Siberia to northeast China. And they have agreed to construct a second major gas pipeline from western Siberia to China’s Xinjiang province. 

The boost to the bilateral cooperation agenda has helped enable work towards stronger, common positions on key regional and global issues too. This includes North Korea, which both Russia and China have land borders with and with whom they have been long-standing allies. 

In the context of the recent meeting between Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un, Pyongyang will be a significant theme of this week’s bilateral talks. Beijing and Moscow cautiously welcomed the Singapore and Vietnam summits between Trump and Kim, but they are also now concerned that they don’t become passive bystanders, wanting instead to reinforce their interests as key players in the grand geopolitical game that is now potentially being played out on the peninsula if the peace process does not completely unravel.

Taken overall, with Chinese and Russia relations with the US looking ever unpredictable under Trump, Putin and Xi are placing increasing emphasis on their partnership. While this is underpinned by a growing economic and political dialogue, it is also their personal closeness that appears to be underpinning the rejuvenated relationship that may only warm further into the 2020s.

  • Andrew Hammond is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics
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