REUTERS/Evgenia Novozhenina – Russian President Vladimir Putin attempts to shake hands with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping during a meeting in Moscow, Russia, June 5, 2019.
By Ilya Tsukanov
Chinese President Xi Jinping will embark on a three-day state visit to Russia on Monday at the invitation of his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. What issues are the two leaders expected to discuss? What’s the significance of the trip, and what message does he plan to convey to Moscow and the rest of the world?
Xi’s visit to Russia will be the ninth such trip of his presidency, and the 40th time he meets with Putin. The trip, taking place March 20-22, matches almost to the day the March 22-23, 2013 visit the Chinese leader made to Moscow a decade ago – when he chose to make Russia the first country he travelled to, just a week after being elected as president.
“You are the first foreign head of state I have met. I get the impression that you and I always treat each other in an open-hearted manner. We are similar in character and have become good friends,” Xi told Putin during that fateful first visit in 2013. “I will come to Russia often, and President Putin will visit us more often,” Xi promised.
Xi kept his word, and has traveled to Moscow, St. Petersburg, Sochi, Ufa, and Vladivostok repeatedly over the past decade for formal state visits, less formal gatherings, and forums. The upcoming trip is symbolically once again Xi’s first visit abroad after his reelection for a historic third presidential term on March 10.
The Chinese leader’s appreciation for Russia is not a mere diplomatic courtesy. As a child and young man, he studied classics of Russian literature, including Chekhov, Dostoyevsky, Pushkin, and Tolstoy. His Chinese revolutionary and politician father, Xi Zhongxun, was reportedly sympathetic toward the Soviet Union and Russia throughout his life. During a 2019 trip to St. Petersburg, as Xi and Putin toured the Aurora – the Russian cruiser which fired the first shot during the October Revolution of 1917, Xi sought to convey to his Russian host the importance of the cruiser to China’s Revolution, and in the creation of China’s Communist Party. “Therefore, the cruiser carries great importance in our hearts,” he said.
The complete itinerary of Xi’s trip has not been released. However, Yuri Ushakov, an aide to the Russian president, has dropped some big hints, saying the first day, March 20, will feature an informal closed meeting and dinner between Putin and Xi, while March 21 will feature meetings of Russian and Chinese delegations in the Kremlin’s St. George Hall.
The second day of the trip will include a meeting between Xi and Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin. A plethora of senior Russian officials will be on hand for the broader ministerial meetings, including Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu, Deputy Security Council Chairman Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s Central Bank chief, energy, finance, and transport ministers, and the heads of Rosatom and the Ministry of Military-Technical Cooperation. The meetings will be followed by the signing of nearly a dozen “important” bilateral documents, according to the Kremlin, with Putin and Xi to sign a joint statement on plans to develop Russian-Chinese economic cooperation to the year 2030, and a joint statement on deepening the comprehensive partnership and strategic interaction between the two countries.
“This is a major event in our bilateral relations and confirms the special nature of the Russian-Chinese partnership. We have no doubt that the upcoming talks will give a powerful new impetus to the development of the entire range of bilateral cooperation,” Ushakov told journalists. The official confirmed that the talks would include discussions on “the most sensitive issues.”
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin also dropped hints about the Chinese side’s expectations for the visit, saying Xi would have “an in-depth exchange of views” with his Russian counterpart “on bilateral relations and major international and regional issues,” “jointly draw a new blueprint for the development of bilateral relations, and further deepen China-Russia mutually beneficial cooperation across the board.”
“The China-Russia relationship is built on the basis of no-alliance, no-confrontation and no-targeting of any third party. The two countries always follow the path of partnership over alliance, and dialogue over confrontation, and grow a new type of major-country relations featuring mutual respect, peaceful coexistence and win-win cooperation,” Wang said.
The NATO-Russia proxy conflict in Ukraine will undoubtedly be a major topic of discussion between Putin and Xi, with Wang making clear that the Chinese president’s visit “is also about peace,” and that “on the Ukraine issue, China always stands on the side of peace and dialogue and stands on the right side of history.” Pointing to the recently announced Chinese 12-point peace plan, the Foreign Ministry spokesman emphasized that Beijing’s “consistent position and practice stands in sharp contrast with the acts of certain countries that apply double standards on arms sales and keep adding fuel to the fire on the Ukraine crisis.”
Without calling out the United States and its NATO allies by name, Wang emphasized that China believes “that political dialogue is the only way to resolve conflicts and disputes,” and that fanning the flames, fueling the fight, unilateral sanctions and ‘maximum pressure’ will only fuel the tension and make matters worse.”
“Of course, the conflict in Ukraine will be discussed. We highly appreciate the restrained, measured position of the Chinese leadership on this issue. We are aware of the Chinese peace plan. I’m sure both leaders will exchange their assessments of the present situation specifically in the context of the progression of the conflict in Ukraine. What thoughts will appear after this, we will see,” Ushakov said.
Zelensky Phone Call?
After Xi’s trip to Russia was announced last week, US media reported that Xi planned to have a telephone conversation with President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine following his visit with Putin. This information, citing anonymous sources said to be “familiar with the plan,” was immediately hailed by US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, who said Washington has “been encouraging” the Chinese leader to “reach out” to Zelensky to “hear directly the Ukrainian perspective and not just the Russian perspective on this.”
Whether or not the call takes place, it won’t be happening in Russia, Ushakov said. “There will be no additional aggravating protocol features. The main thing is negotiations, negotiations, negotiations. The visit is called a state visit to emphasize its importance, and will be businesslike in nature,” the presidential aide said after being asked to comment on the media reports.
It’s not immediately clear why the US is so interested in a Xi-Zelensky phone call anyway, since Biden has already dismissed China’s peace plan, terming it as one-sided in favor of Russia. However, despite US efforts to sabotage the peace talks, perhaps China may be successful in bringing the two sides to the negotiating table. This could account for US interest in who Xi speaks to. Otherwise, Washington could suffer another diplomatic setback on the world stage like the one it did earlier this month when Iran and Saudi Arabia announced a surprise breakthrough normalization of relations agreement brokered by Beijing and with no input whatsoever from the US.
During Putin and Xi’s first meeting a decade ago, the Chinese president pointed out that despite the size of the two countries and their large economies, bilateral trade between them was only about $82 billion. The two leaders vowed to increase these figures, first to $100 billion, and then to $150 billion. According to Chinese Customs data, trade between Russia and China reached over $190 billion in 2022, setting a new record. That’s still significantly less than the $1.6 trillion in trade China does with the US and the European Union, but does signal Beijing’s slow, careful shift away from being the “workshop of the world” for rich Western nations in favor of more extensive cooperation with other global partners.
Aside from raw trade data, a growing amount of economic cooperation between the two countries is being done in their national currencies – the ruble and the yuan, with engagement also deepening in technology, ecommerce, digital economy, biopharma, and so-called green technologies. The yuan’s share in Russian bank balance sheets has been steadily rising, and the two countries have engaged in discussions on easing the use of one another’s payment systems.
Energy cooperation also carries great import in the Russia-China economic relationship, Ambassador Zhang Hanhui told Sputnik on Friday, after being asked to preview Xi’s trip.
“As President Xi Jinping has noted, Sino-Russian cooperation in the energy sector is the cornerstone of business cooperation between the two countries and a positive factor for ensuring global energy security. In recent years, China and Russia have strengthened cooperation, jointly implemented major projects, with bilateral collaboration in the oil and gas sector developing positively, playing a stabilizing role in bilateral cooperation, and demonstrating great flexibility and extensive potential,” the envoy noted.
Indeed, energy is an area where the often-touted Chinese diplomatic principle of “win-win” engagement rings particularly true, with Russia finding alternative markets for vast amounts of energy reorienting deliveries away from Europe and the US, and China gaining a close partner ready to assure reliability in energy deliveries at discount prices. The People’s Republic purchased over 86 million tons of Russian oil in 2022 – 8 percent above the 2021 figures. LNG imports from Russia hit 6.5 million tons, while pipeline gas sales reached a record 11.5 billion cubic meters, with purchases to increase further with the implementation of new pipeline infrastructure projects, Zhang said.
In light of the current atmosphere of tensions in international politics, Xi’s visit to Russia carries special significance, demonstrating Beijing’s confidence in global affairs, and readiness to pursue its interests without having to account for the opinions of Western countries. The trip shows that Xi and China simply don’t care about the thousands of sanctions that have been slapped on Russia by the West, nor the political circus surrounding the “arrest warrant” put out against the Russian president by the ICC.
“China together with Russia will continue to promote the principles of a multipolar world order and the democratization of international relations, and to provide reliable guarantees for global strategic balance and stability,” Ambassador Zhang said. Beijing and Moscow, the diplomat emphasized, pursue cooperation along the principle of “having one another’s backs.”
Ushakov characterized Russian-Chinese relations as being at their best-ever state, and said they “continue to actively gain momentum.”
“There is no leader and follower in these ties, no restrictions, no prohibitive measures. We’re talking about strategic interaction of two partners who trust one another and in many respects share the same goals, the same tasks,” the presidential aide said, noting that the current course follows from the treaty of friendship and cooperation that was signed in July 2001, and renewed in 2022.
*Tsukanov is a Moscow-based correspondent specializing in Eastern European, US and Middle Eastern politics, Cold War history, energy security and military affairs. Member of the Sputnik team since the site’s inception in 2014.
This article was first published in Sputnik.