Tag Archives: Vladimir Putin

China Is Becoming The Big Brother In Its Friendship With Russia

Chinese President Xi Jinping meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin at Forumlar Majmuasi Complex in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, Sept. 15, 2022. Photo credit: Xinhua/Ju Peng

PRESIDENT XI JINPING and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, have had their much-anticipated tete-a-tete on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in Samarkand.

Like everyone else not in the room, this Bystander is scrambling for crumbs from the conversation. There is precious little of substance in the public reports of the meeting.

According to Xinhua, Xi told Putin that China is ready to work with Russia in extending strong support to each other on issues concerning their respective core interests. Other boilerplate text is available, although none that mentions Ukraine.

Unexpectedly Putin, before the meeting, acknowledged that China had (unspecified) questions and concerns over Ukraine but then picked up the pre-prepared script by thanking China for its ‘balanced position’ — a phrase we heard earlier in the week from the Kremlin — and saying that the US attempts to create a unipolar world would fail.

Both the Chinese and Russian readouts of the meeting mentioned Putin’s expression of support for the ‘One-China’ principle — the legerdemain Beijing and Washington devised for their relationship over Taiwan that Beijing now seems to be seeking to elevate into a universal principle.

However, Putin’s need to mention it points to how the balance of power in the Russia-China ‘no limits’ friendship is titling in Beijing’s favour. That is not to say that China is not offering Russia assistance, but it is becoming the ‘Big Brother’ and so gets first pick in setting the terms.

Those involve increasing flows of cut-price Russian energy eastward, but not so much by way of Chinese technology or investment going in the opposite direction, and certainly not any visible flows of military equipment or supplies.

If Putin had harboured any expectations of receiving an endorsement from Xi of his invasion of Ukraine — and the way the Kremlin has been rowing back from some fulsome comments about Chinese assistance suggests he did not — then meeting amid the disparate scrum of leaders attending the SCO summit gave Xi a perfect excuse not to offer one.

Meanwhile, Xi could get on with the task of deepening China’s infrastructure and energy ties to Central Asia, thus further chipping away at Russia’s historic sway in the region.

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Russia’s Fulsomeness Discomforts Its Firm Friend China

Li Zhanshu, chairman of China's National People's Congress (NPC) Standing Committee, meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Russia's far eastern city of Vladivostok, Sept. 7, 2022. Photo credit: Xinhua

MOSCOW HAS BEEN far more forthcoming about the help Russia is receiving from China than Beijing, and probably than Beijing would like.

News that President Xi Jinping would meet his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, during the first day of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in Samarkand on September 15-16, first came from the Russian side, as did statements that the two would discuss Russia’s war in Ukraine and Taiwan. Beijing has yet to confirm that the two men will meet one-to-one.

Beijing has tried to walk a fine line in public between fulfilling its commitments to its ‘no limits’ friendship with Moscow, declared when Putin visited Xi during February’s Beijing Winter Olympics, and opening itself to Western sanctions for aiding Russia’s Ukraine war.

In that light, the official Russian readout of the meeting last week between Russian lawmakers and Li Zhanshu, chairman of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee and the third most senior Party official (seen in the photo above with Putin), would have been received uncomfortably in Beijing.

This quoted Li as saying:

China understands and supports Russia on issues that represent its vital interests, in particular on the situation in Ukraine…We fully understand the necessity of all the measures taken by Russia aimed at protecting its key interests, we are providing our assistance.

Chinese reports did not mention Ukraine.

Russia’s Tass news agency also quoted Li as telling Vyacheslav Volodin, his counterpart in the Russian Duma (parliament), during a separate meeting:

In the context of US sanctions imposed against you and against us, some of our joint areas of cooperation are indeed gradually becoming more sensitive, but I am convinced that we should not halt our cooperation just because we are afraid of sanctions.

This week, Moscow appears to have been trying hard to tone down its fulsomeness about the bilateral relationship. Kremlin aide Yuri Ushakov said at a briefing in Moscow merely that Moscow values China’s ‘balanced approach’ to the Ukraine conflict.

This Bystander suspects that such carefully balanced rhetoric will be challenging to sustain in Samarkand as the two leaders put forth their alternative world order to challenge the United States.

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Xi and Putin To Meet In Samarkand

ACCORDING TO RUSSIAN reports, President Xi Jinping and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, will meet for discussions during the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Samarkand next week.

It will be their first in-person meeting since Putin attended the Beijing Winter Olympics in January ahead of his invasion of Ukraine.

The summit will also be the SCO’s first in-person get-together since before the pandemic. Russia’s ambassador to Beijing, Andrey Denisov, told the TASS news agency that:

I do not want to say that online summits are not full-fledged, but still, direct communication between leaders is a different quality of discussion. One way or another, there will be plenary sessions and various kinds of group meetings, and we are planning a serious, full-fledged meeting of our leaders with a detailed agenda, which we are now, in fact, working on with our Chinese partners.

By lighting on the SCO for his first official trip outside China in more than two years, Xi can avoid making it a direct visit to Russia while still making Putin the first important foreign leader he meets. He will also be able to signal the shifting geopolitical balances between East and West and offer a counterpoint in the SCO to the collation of like-minded democracies that the United States is orchestrating, with more success than Beijing might have expected.

Over the next ten days, we can expect a barrage of coordinated commentary from Chinese and Russian state media about the growing need for Moscow and Beijing to cooperate to safeguard and reform the international order against Washington’s efforts to reshape it to preserve its hegemony.

We can also expect a sub-narrative intended for domestic Chinese consumption on the ineffectiveness of Western economic sanctions. Li Zhanshu, chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress and China’s third most senior leader, set the tone when he spoke at the Seventh Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok on Wednesday. Li claimed that the harsh sanctions imposed by the United States and other Western countries had not defeated Russia’s economy and praised its ‘stability and resilence’, which he attributed to Putin’s leadership.

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Russia’s Ukraine Invasion Leaves China In A Quandry

CHINA DID NOT want a Russian invasion of Ukraine and, ahead of Russia sending in troops, had distanced itself slightly from Moscow despite the agreement between Presidents Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin during the Beijing Winter Olympics reaffirming their ‘no limits’ partnership.

A shared antipathy to US foreign policies is one thing; going to war as allies is another. Historically, the relationship between Beijing and Moscow has blown hot and cold. Partly, that is because there has rarely been the parity of power that is one of the prerequisites for a strong security alliance. Today, China is far the stronger of the two. Nor is ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’ the true confluence of interests that is another prerequisite.

Beijing has not followed Moscow in recognising the Russian-backed separatist-held areas of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent. (It was not happy when Russia annexed Crimea in 2014.) It will be keen to avoid the diplomatic gymnastics necessary to avoid violating its oft-repeated principle that China does not interfere in the internal affairs of others and that other countries should not interfere in its internal affairs.

However, it will now face having to make realpolitik choices.

It is unlikely to endorse the invasion formally but equally unlikely to condemn it. Nor will it join international sanctions against Russia, arguing that sanctions are ineffective. In doing so, it is taking a swipe at US sanctions against China more than advancing an argument on first principles (not that that argument is not without foundation).

Moscow will undoubtedly look to Beijing for economic support to provide sanctions relief. That will mostly come from increased Chinese purchases of Russian gas, as already agreed via Gazprom’s newly signed second gas supply contract.

Beyond that, China will offer little more than rhetorical support. In November, the two countries signed a three-year military cooperation agreement for joint military exercises and patrols. However, the primary purpose is political, and military inter-operability is limited.

Of several joint exercises undertaken in 2021, most served to bolster Beijing’s display of force towards Japan and South Korea, neither country being a particular focus of Russian foreign policy concern. Tellingly, China did not reciprocate by participating in Russian exercises on its European borders.

If Putin thought he could expect China’s full-hearted support for an invasion of Ukraine, he misread Xi badly. China has distanced itself from the invasion, with officials stressing that Russia ‘is an independent major country, and it decides its policy and actions independently according to its own strategic judgment and interests’.

Foreign Minister Wang Yi has repeatedly made China’s usual milquetoast calls for restraint on all sides and for the situation to be resolved through dialogue. Yet his spokesperson — Hua Chunying, making an unexpected return to the podium to conduct the ministry’s routine press conference on February 23 despite her recent promotion of assistant minister — was typically pugnacious towards the United States:

A key question here is what role the US, the culprit of current tensions surrounding Ukraine, has played. If someone keeps pouring oil on the flame while accusing others of not doing their best to put out the fire, such kind of behaviour is clearly irresponsible and immoral.

She struck the same note the following day, following the start of the Russian military action. State media and social media, too, reinforce the narrative that the United States is responsible for the tensions in Ukraine. They are also dampening any discussion about Russia protecting or reincorporating minorities that could raise awkward questions inside China about the situations of many of its population.

Beijing will also be warry of nationalist voices that say Russia’s invasion of Ukraine provides a template for invading Taiwan. However, it will be calibrating the West’s response to Putin’s moves into Ukraine as a guide to how far it can continue to push against Taipei without getting significant international pushback.

Further complicating China’s position over Ukraine is its trade and investment interests along the Belt and Road, particularly in the former Soviet states of Central Asia. While it accepts Moscow’s security dominance there, it has sought to deploy its commercial power to establish its influence.

Ukraine is a way station along the Belt and Road’s routes to Europe. Last year, China signed an investment agreement with Ukraine, which it also hopes will become a source of food imports. China is already Ukraine’s largest trading partner.

War in Ukraine will set back Beijing’s efforts to drive a wedge between the EU and the United States over their strategic responses to China.
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Russia And China Stand Close But Not Fully Shoulder To Shoulder

President Vladimir Putin of Russia (left) seen with President Xi Jinping of China at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing on February 4, 2022. Photo credit: Xinhua/Ding Haitao

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN of Russia is the first world leader that President Xi Jinping has met in person since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.

That in itself speaks to the growing closeness of the relationship between the two countries. The meeting of their leaders in Beijing ahead of the opening of the Winter Olympics on February 4 — their 38th since Xi became China’s leader in 2012-13 — only served to underline that.

A joint statement touched on common talking points:

  • a call on the West to abandon ‘the ideologised approaches of the cold war’ and on Nato to rule out expansion in eastern Europe;
  • a denouncement of security blocs in the Asia-Pacific region, notably the trilateral security pact between the United States, United Kingdom and Australia (Aukus); and
  • a pledge to step up cooperation to thwart colour revolutions and external interference and deepen their ‘back-to-back’ strategic coordination.

Putin voiced his support for the reunification of Taiwan, but there was no specific mention of Ukraine in the statement. There will inevitably be comparisons drawn between the two, although these only go so far. Xi will be wary, too, of pushing the parallels. He wants neither to drive Europe deeper into Washington’s camp nor to upset China’s economic interests in Ukraine, a country with which Beijing still has diplomatic relations.

War would impose costs on Beijing. Its cooperation with Moscow would not extend to committing PLA forces, although a small humanitarian mission would be possible.

However, an invasion of Ukraine would likely bring severe US sanctions against Russia. Beijing would then be pressed to offer economic support such as providing alternative payment systems, loans for Russian banks and firms, more purchases of Russian oil or even outright sanctions-busting. It would prefer not to get drawn in to any of that except on its own terms and timetable.

China and Russia stand close but not yet fully shoulder to shoulder. Xi sees trade and investment as the backbone of the relationship even if security and geopolitical cooperation remains important. He told Putin during their meeting that China intends to increase the annual level of bilateral trade to $250 billion. It is around $140 billion a year now. China is happy to buy more Russian gas.

In that context, China has advanced a nuanced narrative, aimed at non-Western countries, of the Ukraine crisis as yet another example of Washington and Western democracy’s ‘failure’ and the West’s bullying and refusal to respect the sovereign right of other countries.

In the same vein, Xi and Putin also portrayed their countries as the defenders of multilateralism and democracy and upholders of international equity and justice. That is undoubtedly overegging the pudding but fits a long-term strategy — and common interest — to undermine the West’s soft power.

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Russia Looks East To China’s Energy Markets

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The oil pipeline from Siberia to Skovorodino on the Chinese border that Russia’s prime minister, Vladimir Putin, opened on Sunday, is a further sign of how Russia, like everyone else, is looking east for its trade as China’s economy becomes the epicenter of Asia’s growth. The line is a short 67 kms spur of the 2,750 kms pipe from Taishet in eastern Siberia to Nakhodka on the Sea of Japan that Russia will use to supply up to 1.6 million barrels a day to the growing Asian market once it is completed in 2012. The picture above shows a pumping station at Skovorodino under construction in April.

Last year, Beijing provided Moscow with a $25 billion loan repayable in oil that will let China import 300,000 barrels a day of Russian oil for 20 years from 2011, one of a series of oil-for-loans deals that Beijing has struck. Ten billion dollars of those loans, made via China Development Bank, are to Transneft, the pipeline operator. (The other  $15 billion went to the oil producer Rosneft). That flow of oil will start later this year, once China has built the 930 kms link from its own oil pipeline network in Daqing to the Skovorodino spur.

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