Russia and China keep the West guessing

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin attend the opening ceremony of the third Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, October 18, 2023.

Pedro Pardo | Afp | Getty Images

Russia’s close relations with superpower China are under scrutiny as Russian President Vladimir Putin meets his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping in Beijing on Thursday.

As the two countries’ ties with the West fracture over the war in Ukraine and global trade disputes, the latest meeting between the two countries is closely followed by signs that the leaders will deepen their own economic cooperation, military and geopolitical.

As Putin was greeted by Xi in a welcome ceremony in Beijing at the start of his two-day state visit, he said that “it is of fundamental importance that relations between Russia and China are not opportunistic and are not directed against anyone. in today’s world affairs is one of the main stabilizing factors in the international arena. »

The Kremlin said the leaders would discuss “a range of issues related to the comprehensive partnership and strategic interaction”, and that a joint declaration and bilateral agreements were expected to be signed.

Putin told Chinese state media ahead of his visit that “relations between Russia and China have reached a record high and even in the face of serious international situations, relations between the two countries continue to strengthen,” he said. reported the Xinhua news agency.

The Russia-China relationship is “unmissable,” Sam Greene, director of the democratic resilience program at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA), told CNBC.

“It would probably be an exaggeration to call them strategic partners, but they are strategically aligned in many ways, perhaps not entirely of their own accord and perhaps not entirely to their liking, but inevitably because of the decisions they made and the decisions made by Western governments that really brought them together,” Greene said Wednesday.

“Neither Putin nor Xi can achieve what they want, both domestically and internationally, without each other’s support. That said, it is not symmetrical and China has many more options and many more flexibility than Russia,” he added. ” he added.

“Not an alliance” or a “marriage of convenience”

There is no doubt that Russian and Chinese leaders will emphasize the positives when they meet on Thursday, a trip made at Xi’s request. It is also Putin’s first trip abroad since he was re-elected to a fifth term in March.

The Kremlin said Thursday that the leaders “will have an in-depth discussion on the range of issues related to the comprehensive partnership and strategic cooperation between Russia and China” – although talks between Xi and Putin and their respective delegations are not expected last only 45 minutes. the Tass news agency reported – before signing a joint declaration and several bilateral documents. They will then attend a gala marking 75 years of diplomatic relations between Russia and China.

Putin is also expected to meet Chinese Premier Li Qiang and travel to Harbin, in the northeast of the country, for a trade and investment exhibition, according to Russian state media.

Analysts expect this latest meeting between the leaders – there have been more than 40 such meetings over the past 14 years – will see the leaders reaffirm their “no holds barred” partnership and plans to pursue projects common economic.

It is also likely that Moscow and Beijing will reaffirm their fundamental ideological opposition to what they see as “imperialism” and Western hegemony, as they call for a multipolar world order. It’s also likely that the war in Ukraine (a conflict China calls a “crisis”) will be on the agenda, as Putin told the Chinese press on Wednesday that he supports a proposed 12-point peace plan by Beijing last year.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping leave after a reception following their talks at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 21, 2023.

Pavel Byrkin | Afp | Getty Images

Putin and Xi developed a great friendship during their respective 24 and 11 years in power, but analysts point out that the relationship is more nuanced than it seems.

“Essentially, it’s not an alliance, it’s a multi-dimensional, multi-faceted relationship that has been building and evolving for about 30 years now,” Natasha Kuhrt, a senior lecturer in war studies at the King’s College London.

“It may seem that the only basis for this relationship is animosity towards the West, and that is only one element, but there are a number of other factors that bring them together,” she said. added.

Russia benefits from continued Chinese trade, particularly in energy, Kuhrt noted, but Beijing also benefits from Russia’s shared interest in maintaining security and stability in Central Asia, as well as its military experience and its rapid development in the field of defense technology. .

“I think it’s a mistake to view this as simply a marriage of convenience, because that’s how people have looked at things for quite a long time in the West, which means we have fundamentally underestimated the strength of relationship,” Kuhrt said. said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping during a welcoming ceremony at the third Belt and Road Forum in Beijing, October 17, 2023.

Sergei Savostianov | Afp | Getty Images

CEPA analyst Greene acknowledged that it was wrong to characterize the relationship as an unequal one, with Russia and China benefiting greatly from the partnership.

“China benefits a lot, materially, from this relationship,” he said, by allowing it to buy Russian hydrocarbons at preferential prices and access investment opportunities. Russia also offers it a gateway to the Arctic, a region it covets strategically and commercially, Greene said.

Russia, on the other hand, gets “a lot of rhetoric” and trade from this relationship “which allows it to keep money in its economy and that’s really an essential mission for Putin.”

“But this is not being achieved on what we consider preferential or friendly terms and China continues to negotiate very hard in all its trade relations,” he noted.

Caution prevails for China

Despite the united front presented by Russia and China, there are points of divergence and discomfort between the allies.

Russia’s war in Ukraine, for example, has not been openly criticized by Beijing, but it has disrupted global alliances and supply chains, making China uneasy at a time when its own economy is vulnerable to sluggish growth and demand.

Its support for Russia during the war has also made China a target for the United States, which seeks to punish countries it says are helping Moscow circumvent sanctions and trade restrictions.

In early May, the United States imposed sanctions on more than a dozen Chinese companies, accused of supplying Russia with dual-use components that could be used in Russian military hardware against Ukraine.

China has vehemently denied any wrongdoing, with Liu Pengyu, a spokesperson for the Chinese embassy in Washington, saying that “the Chinese side firmly opposes the illegal unilateral sanctions of the United States,” in comments reported by Reuters. Russia has previously denied asking China for military equipment and financial aid.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping attend a welcoming ceremony ahead of Russia-China talks in Moscow, Russia, March 21, 2023.

Mikhail Tereshchenko | Sputnik | via Reuters

Unlike Russia, which appears to have accepted and openly accepted its economic and political isolation from the West, frequently congratulating itself on the fact that its economy has overcome the challenges posed by international sanctions, China is – for now – not so ready to “dissociate” from the West. West.

“Russia has been addressing China for some time with a proposition that ‘none of us like Western structural power in the world… so why not break that up, right?’ …But China, at this point, has not accepted that proposal,” CEPA’s Greene said.

“China is not rhetorically where the West would like it to be, but neither is it fully rhetorically and politically where Russia would like it to be.”

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