Russian President Vladimir Putin is to head to China tomorrow to shore up eastern ties as relations with the West plunge to new lows over the Ukraine crisis.
During a two-day visit to Shanghai, Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) are to seek to clinch a raft of agreements, including a landmark gas deal crucial for Moscow as Europe seeks to cut reliance on Russian oil and gas.
The two leaders also are to take part in a regional security forum and oversee the start of joint naval exercises off Shanghai in the East China Sea.
Moscow’s relations with the US and EU have dived to a post-Cold War low in recent months over Russia’s seizure of Crimea and Western accusations that the Kremlin is fomenting unrest in the east of Ukraine.
The West has slapped sanctions on some of Putin’s closest allies and threatened broader punitive measures if Moscow disrupts presidential polls in Ukraine on May 25.
Amid the showdown the China trip — previously billed as a visit with a heavy focus on energy ties — has acquired new symbolism, analysts said.
“In the face of sanctions, Russia needs to demonstrate that it is not isolated,” said Pyotr Topychkanov, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center.
“This will be the goal of Putin’s visit. He wants to show that Russia has allies,” he added.
Putin is to be joined by a delegation that includes dozens of business tycoons and regional leaders, and oversee the signing of about 30 agreements, his top foreign adviser Yury Ushakov said.
In recent years Russia and China, both veto-wielding members of the UN Security Council, have sought to strengthen ties and often worked in lockstep to contain Washington.
Xi made Russia his first foreign destination after taking office last year and attended the Sochi Olympics in March.
However, the crisis in Ukraine has thrown up a hurdle, with Beijing struggling to support Moscow while maintaining its stance on “non-interference” in other countries’ domestic affairs.
In the runup to the visit, officials have sought to wrap up a decade of talks on a huge deal that could eventually see almost 70 billion cubic meters of Russian gas sent to China annually for the next 30 years.
Less than a week before the visit officials said that differences over pricing remained. Analysts said China may be using Russia’s growing isolation from Western markets as a bargaining chip to negotiate a lower price.
Beijing has denied that, but Ushakov conceded the crisis in ties with the West was affecting the talks to “some extent.”
Russian natural-gas giant Gazprom said on Thursday that the negotiations were “in the final stages,” raising hopes that Putin and Xi will oversee the signing of the mega-deal.
Analysts say the world’s second-largest economy has a variety of potential suppliers to choose from, but its leverage is limited by China’s growing need for additional gas.
“Boosting gas exports to Asia will make Gazprom less reliant on revenues from exports to Europe, potentially making Russia’s foreign policy more intransigent on Ukraine or other matters,” the IHS consultancy said in a comment.
Ahead of the visit, Russian state oil firm Rosneft also held talks with Chinese oil refiner Sinopec with a view to signing a contract.
Last year the two firms signed a preliminary agreement that could see Russia send up to 100 million tonnes of oil to China over 10 years.