Like the belt and road, China-Russia ties show importance of cooperation

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In a sea of geopolitical turmoil that has only become more treacherous in the past weeks, it may be comforting to look at a stable relationship between the leaders of two major powers – China and Russia.
President Xi Jinping, who was re-elected for a third time this year, made his first foreign visit after that to Moscow in March. Now, President Vladimir Putin is returning the favour with a visit to China, signalling that the two countries remain committed to political dialogue and economic cooperation as the way forward in bilateral relations.

Since Xi was elected to his first term in 2013, he and Putin have met at least 40 times and exchanged many telephone calls and official letters. For the Russian president, his Chinese counterpart is arguably the most-met head of state, other than the leader of neighbouring Belarus, which is part of a union of Russia.

While the frequency of personal meetings and other contacts does not signify that the leaders agree on everything, there is no denying the two presidents are on the same page – or at least more so than either of them with any of their Western counterparts.
It is telling that Putin’s China visit will coincide with the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing. Like at the previous 2019 forum, the Russian leader is expected to address the participants of this major event and reconfirm Russia’s commitment to the implementation of the Belt and Road Initiative.

The attendance of Xi and Putin at the forum not only highlights that it is a high-profile event that will set the global development agenda for decades, but also that there is a high level of trust between China and Russia.

The theme of the 2019 forum was the promotion of globalisation. Since then, however, protectionism has been on the rise with the use of trade barriers and restrictions to score political points. Both China and Russia have been affected, whether it is from the Western sanctions imposed on the Chinese technology sector or the so-called price cap on Russian oil.

When it comes to promoting free trade, Russia and China see eye to eye and it is likely that this will emerge as one of the key themes of this year’s forum as well, with the Belt and Road Initiative serving as the best illustration that cooperation, rather than politically motivated hectoring and economic restrictions, is the way forward in international relations.

China-Russia relations are an example of pragmatic, beneficial and constructive dialogue on both the political and economic fronts. The trade turnover between the two countries could exceed US$200 billion for the first time this year: it has already surged to US$155 billion in the first eight months, even as China’s trade with other countries fell or stagnated. This is up from US$108 billion in 2018.
Russia remains a strategic supplier of oil, natural gas, coal and electricity to China. A new gas pipeline project, called the “ Power of Siberia 2”, which will pass through Mongolia, is in the works. It was the highlight of Putin and Xi’s meeting in March when it was announced that most of the deal’s parameters had been agreed upon. The new pipeline will ensure supplies of an additional roughly 50 billion cubic metres of Russian gas to China annually.


Xi and Putin deepen China-Russia partnership in Moscow talks, but no Ukraine peace deal details

Xi and Putin deepen China-Russia partnership in Moscow talks, but no Ukraine peace deal details

Other areas of strong mutual economic interest include chemicals, fertilisers, infrastructure, construction and agriculture. One recent development is the emergence of China as a leading exporter of automobiles and auto parts to Russia.

With trade restrictions in the wake of the Ukraine crisis coming from Europe and the United States, Russian companies and consumers are increasingly shifting their focus to China, which has become a key beneficiary of Russia’s rearrangement of its trade and supply routes.

Russia and China are forming an economic interdependence and it is strategically important to make sure this relationship is balanced and constructive to guarantee a stable and beneficial cooperation that is free from geopolitical and ideological considerations. Both leaders have repeatedly stated their preference for this pragmatic and ideology-free approach to foreign relations and this is something the Belt and Road Initiative has been promoting from day one.

Given the challenges and the geopolitical context, it may be too optimistic to expect any “breakthrough” results from Putin’s visit to China. Yet the very fact that the two countries are maintaining effective dialogue at the highest level shows that both sides are eager to maintain and further develop their friendly ties.

The dramatic geopolitical events across the globe – whether it is Russia’s stand-off with the West over Ukraine, the war in Syria or the recently rekindled Israeli-Palestine conflict – remain fluid and unpredictable, and this is complicating strategic decision-making for both China and Russia. For that reason, direct contact between the Chinese and Russian leaders is of extreme importance.

Mikhail Karpov is a PhD candidate of historical sciences at the Moscow State University’s Institute of Asian and African Studies. He is also an associate professor at the School of Asian Studies at the Russian Higher School of Economics

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