China and the World

Bear hugs

Is Trump’s trade war bringing China and Russia ever closer together?


Best friends forever?

This year marks the seventieth anniversary of formal diplomatic relations being established between China and Russia.

To mark the occasion President Xi Jinping visited Moscow and St Petersburg last week.

It was an over-the top-affair – as is now typical for Xi and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin.

Xi gifted Moscow Zoo two pandas – a bear only ever bestowed on countries China wants to woo – and referred to Putin as his “best and bosom friend”.

Putin repaid the extraordinary compliment by taking the Chinese leader on a cruise along St Petersburg’s waterfront and presenting him with an honorary doctorate from St Petersburg State University – the Russian president’s alma mater.

Speaking at the St Petersburg International Economic Forum – the centrepiece of the three-day visit – Xi called out America in everything but name for placing sanctions on Russia and tariffs on China.

“The global governance systems and processes have become disproportionate and dysfunctional as never before – new problems and challenges are arising amid increasing anti-globalisation, hegemonism and power-based politics,” he said.

Putin, citing China’s telecoms giant Huawei as an example, said the West had resorted to “arm twisting, intimidation and the removal of rivals by non-market methods”.

The clear message – backed up by the signing of a statement on a new “comprehensive strategic partnership” – was that China and Russia have each other’s backs.

They may not agree on everything, but in the words of Moscow-based analyst Alexander Gabuyev the two countries have adopted the principle of “not always with each other, but never against each other”.

Formal diplomatic relations between China and what was then the Soviet Union were established on October 2 1949 – the day after Mao Zedong proclaimed the creation of the People’s Republic.

However, good relations only lasted for about a decade, souring after Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin, which led Mao to become wary of Moscow. The two sides “split”.

Unresolved border disputes going back to imperial times became bones of contention – with deadly skirmishes occurring over an island in 1969 – while the Soviet Union supported a separatist movement in the western region of Xinjiang. The animosity was the main reason why Mao was open to a warming of ties with the US in the early 1970s.

Since 1991, however, Sino-Russia relations have markedly improved – slowly at first and then more rapidly after Russia was isolated by the West for its 2014 invasion of Crimea.

The two countries have much in common: similarly autocratic political systems, a shared distrust of the West (especially America) and a strong desire to regain their greatness on the global stage.

Where they are not so similar, they are often complementary: China is short of natural resources and Russia has them in abundance. Russia needs capital and Chinese banks and companies are keen to invest abroad. Russia needs infrastructure and tech. China needs agricultural products.

Some experts have dismissed this month’s declaration of friendship as hyperbole, saying it’s designed to paper over deeper rivalries yet unsettle leaders in the West.

It is true there hasn’t been much affection between the peoples of both nations (see WiC444) but the two leaders probably weren’t understating things when they declared that Sino-Russian governmental ties have reached an “unprecedentedly high level”. Trade between the two nations hit $107 billion last year and both sides have said they want to see that double in the next few years.

While Xi was in St Petersburg China’s biggest shipping firm Cosco announced it had signed a deal with its Russia counterpart Sovcomflot to transport liquefied natural gas through the Northern Sea Route or “Polar Silk Road”; other deals penned by Xi and his delegation of 1,000 businesspeople included an between Huawei and Russian mobile network operator MTS for the Chinese telecoms firm to build Russia’s first 5G network (see page 11).

And while all this was happening a US cruiser and a Russian destroyer almost collided in waters off the southeastern coast of China. CNN quoted experts who said Putin had planned the encounter to coincide with Xi’s Russia trip.

“Clearly this sends a strong message to President Xi, from Putin’s perspective, that we are on your team,” CNN’s military analyst said.

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