Putin’s visit to China and the development of China-Russia relations

Release Date : 2024-05-17

(Tzou Wen-feng, Assistant Professor, Graduate Institute of Strategic Studies, National Defense University)

Russian President Vladimir Putin arrived in Beijing on May 16 for a state visit. This was his first trip to China since he started his new term of office on May 7, and his second one after attending the Third Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in October last year, which demonstrated the great importance he attached to China.

Putin’s itinerary can be divided into three main segments: first, talks in both narrow and expanded format with Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People; then in the evening, the most important closed-door consultations on foreign policy cooperation, which were attended by only a few high-ranking officials from both sides; and then, on the 17th, he will travel to Harbin for the opening ceremony of the 8th China-Russia Expo, during which inter-regional agreements will be signed.

During the official meeting between Putin and Xi Jinping, the two sides signed and issued a joint statement on deepening China-Russia comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination for a new era on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties between the two countries, the key points of which include the following:

First, it specifies that China-Russia relations go beyond the mode of military-political alliance of the Cold War era, and that they have a nature of “non-alliance, non-confrontation, and no targeting of the third party.”

Second, the two sides will deepen mutual trust and cooperation in military affairs, expand the scale of joint training activities, regularly organize joint sea and air cruises, strengthen coordination and cooperation under bilateral and multilateral frameworks, and enhance their ability to jointly respond to risks and challenges.

Third, the two sides have reached a common understanding on the exemption from international obligations of the countries concerned in respect of their property, including their sovereign reserves, and they condemn any attempts to confiscate foreign assets. The two sides will provide protection for each other’s property in their own countries, and guarantee the safe and timely return of the other country’s property during its temporary transfer to their own countries.

Fourth, the two sides will improve their financial infrastructure, unclog the settlement channels of each other’s business entities, strengthen the cooperation and sound development of the Chinese and Russian banking and insurance sectors in terms of supervision, and encourage the issuance of bonds in the financial markets of the other countries in compliance with the principle of marketization.

Fifth, the two sides will continue to consolidate strategic cooperation in the energy sector, develop cooperation in the fields of oil, natural gas, liquefied natural gas, coal and electricity in accordance with market principles, and ensure the stable operation of relevant cross-border infrastructures so as to facilitate the smooth flow of energy transportation.

After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, in addition to the huge pressure of international sanctions, the geostrategic counter-pressure from the US and Europe on Russia has also increased. Putin naturally has high expectations for Xi Jinping. Russia’s demands are reflected in several aspects. First, in international politics, by highly praising China’s objective and fair stance on the Ukrainian issue, it is hoped that China can help Russia resist Western pressure by reinforcing and expanding the argument that China and Russia are jointly adhering to the principles of international law and opposing Western hegemony. Second, in the area of military cooperation, it is hoped that China can continue to provide Russia with critical assistance in restarting its war machinery and help revitalize the Russian military-industrial complex. Third, on the basis of last year’s historically high trade volume of 240 billion US dollars, it is hoped that China will continue to deepen bilateral economic and trade relations, which are crucial to Russia’s wartime economic lifeline.

However, as seen in the joint statement, while China did state that it is in its fundamental interest to develop a “comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership in the new era” with Russia, and that it will further optimize their structure of cooperation, support the establishment of a platform for scientific research, and continue to unleash the potential for cooperation in cutting-edge areas, China also emphasized the need to consolidate the trend of cooperation in the “traditional areas” of bilateral trade and economic cooperation, and to adhere to the “traditional principles” of China-Russia relations, that is “no alliance, no confrontation, and no targeting of third parties,” which is obviously not exactly a relation of “no limits.”

The reason for the subtle change in China’s position is that the US and Europe are really in fear of the deepening relationship between China and Russia. As seen in the visits of US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, or the meeting of European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and French President Emmanuel Macron with Xi Jinping, they all explicitly asked China not to subsidize Russia’s acts of war, and the US is even seriously considering about sanctioning the relevant Chinese banks and enterprises, which in turn, will hugely impact China’s financial and economic situation.

Therefore, the dilemma of China’s diplomacy with Russia is that, on the one hand, both sides are motivated to cooperate in balancing the power of the US and Europe, and China needs the energy and mining resources from Russia; but on the other hand, China does not want to be “kidnapped” by Russia and get caught in the quagmire of international sanctions, as well as not wanting to jeopardize the efforts to stabilize relations with the West. The evening meeting between Xi and Putin is likely to show that both sides have vital interests, and that China will continue to support Russia to the fullest extent possible. However, China’s vital interests are under serious threat, and it can only take the necessary measures to protect the assets of their banks, and it is inevitable that it will have to sacrifice its financial trade with Russia and reduce its aid to Russia for the time being.

More importantly, out of the five key points of the joint statement, four are actually related to the security of the Western Pacific region, which is obviously inspired by the Russian experience of the Russo-Ukrainian War. That is, the need to use partner countries to amplify the military threat before provoking an incident, the need to make early preparations for the possible economic and financial sanctions, and the need to try to strengthen the most vulnerable, which for China, is precisely energy.

As such, China is making it clear to the West that it is not willing to go through fire and water for Russia, but this does not mean that China-Russia relations will go backward, and that China will continue to cooperate with Russia; and in exchange, Russia will have to help China to complete its strategic layout in the Western Pacific. This is a development that warrants future attention.

Translated to English by Chen Cheng-Yi