Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) sent a signal to the US and Europe yesterday by visiting Russia on his first foreign trip as leader, underlining the importance of Beijing’s growing alliance with Moscow.
The world’s largest energy producer, Russia, and its biggest consumer, China, want particularly to bolster their clout as a financial and geopolitical counterweight to Washington, whose “Asia pivot” regional strategy worries Beijing.
Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin, who were to meet last night, may preside over deals that would make Beijing Russia’s top customer for oil, although they are not expected to sign a long-sought agreement on supplies of pipeline gas to China.
Just before Xi arrived with first lady Peng Liyuan (彭麗媛), a US$2 billion deal was announced by Russian and Chinese companies to develop coal resources in eastern Siberia, which underlined the countries’ intentions.
Putin has said he wants to “catch the Chinese wind in our economic sail” and that desire will grow stronger if China overtakes the US as the world’s largest economy during Xi’s 10-year term.
Xi’s visit overshadowed a meeting between leaders of the Russian government and the European Commission that was also taking place in Moscow.
Putin and Xi, less than a year apart in age, echoed one another in interviews before the visit, each saying the Chinese leader’s choice of Moscow as his first destination was evidence of the “strategic partnership” between the nations.
A smiling Xi, 59, recalled that he read Russian literature in his younger days. Putin, 60, said that Russian-Chinese relations were at “the best in their centuries-long history.”
The two UN Security Council members’ solidarity on important global issues has strengthened in recent years.
They have joined forces three times to block Western-backed measures on the conflict in Syria despite talk of grumbling in Beijing, and Russia has followed China’s lead on North Korea — two issues that would likely come up in yesterday’s talks.
They have negotiated alongside the West on Iran’s nuclear program, but have watered down past sanctions in the UN Security Council and opposed new punitive measures as counterproductive.
Russia has added to Japan’s woes over territorial disputes with Beijing by playing up its control of an archipelago claimed by Tokyo. Beijing and Moscow have also stood side-by-side in rejecting Western criticism of their record on human rights.
However, the lockstep movement on the global stage has not translated into easy agreement on bilateral energy deals.
A huge business complex on the edge of Moscow, decorated with Chinese paintings and red silk armchairs, is the kind of enterprise Xi wants to nurture in Russia.
Xi’s presidency is seen as a chance to put new impetus into such projects and into ties with Russia as a whole, although Putin said this week that bilateral trade had more than doubled in five years and reached US$87.5 billion last year.
However, the trade volume is still about five times smaller than that of Russia with the EU, and also far smaller than China’s trade with the US.