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Xi heads to Russia

Gabriel Domínguez, Srinivas MazumdaruMay 7, 2015

Chinese President Xi Jinping is on a three-day visit to Russia to attend World War II anniversary celebrations and sign a host of deals aimed at bolstering the two nation's strategic cooperation.

Russland Besuch Xi Jinping bei Wladimir Putin
Image: Reuters/M. Klimentyev/RIA Novosti/Kremlin

Following a one-day trip to Kazakhstan, President Xi arrived in Moscow on Friday to attend a large military parade in commemorating the 70th anniversary of the end of Word War II.

Xi's trip from May 8-10 to the Russian capital comes as Beijing seeks to highlight the joint sacrifice of both countries against the Axis powers during the war. After Russia, Xi will make a two-day visit to Belarus, the first by a Chinese president in 14 years.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is expected to reciprocate Xi's attendance to Moscow's Red Square with his own presence in early September at Beijing's own military parade to mark the end of WWII and the defeat of Japanese militarism - something which no previous Russian leader has ever done.

While in Russia, Xi will hold talks with Putin and Russian PM Dmitry Medvedev, as well as meet and decorate war veterans, said Chinese vice foreign minister Cheng Guoping.

Nonetheless, Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, points out that Russia and China will evoke the memories of the war not only to highlight their contributions to common victory, but also to buttress their current policies, respectively, toward the West and Japan.

Pulling together

The Ukrainian crisis has strained Russia's relations with the West. Sanctions have been imposed on Moscow, hurting Russia's economy as well as causing its currency and energy exports to plunge. As a result, the Russian government is moving closer towards Asia, particularly China.

Ukraine Krise Panzer in Kiew
The Ukrainian crisis has strained Russia's relations with the WestImage: picture-alliance/dpa/R. Pilipey

This became clear with President Putin's visit to China in May 2014, during which a multibillion dollar gas supply deal was signed, among other things. Back then, the two sides inked a 30-year gas supply contract that will see the East-Route Pipeline start providing China with 38 billion cubic meters of natural gas annually from 2018.

China, in turn, has tense relationships with neighbors such as Japan over territorial disputes and their wartime past and is thus seeking to strengthen ties with its northern neighbor.

As a result, the two nations have been developing increasingly warming ties and finding common ground internationally, especially at the UN Security Council where they are both permanent members. As vice foreign minister Cheng recently put it: "China and Russia are each other's most important strategic partners. Our relationship is special and significant."

Andrew Small, a fellow with the Asia program of German Marshall Fund of the United States, explained that since the beginning of the Ukraine conflict, Russia has increasingly relied on China to cushion the impact of Western sanctions.

"Russia has relaxed its stance on energy deals, Chinese investments, and high-grade arms sales in order to solicit greater economic support from Beijing. China has therefore been able to capitalize on the Ukraine conflict to make a few important breakthroughs in the bilateral relationship," said Small.


Despite this strategic cooperation, a plethora of irritants linger in the bilateral relationship. For instance, although China has nominally maintained a neutral stance on Russia's actions in Ukraine, Beijing continues to have reservations over Moscow's involvement in the conflict, particularly as it violates one of China's core foreign policy principles of non-interference in the internal affairs of sovereign countries.

At the same time, commercial ties between China and Russia are on the rise. Bilateral trade stood at $95 billion in 2014, and China is aiming to more than double it to $200 billion by 2020, said Rajiv Biswas, chief Asia economist at global analytics firm IHS. China remained Russia's largest trade partner for a fifth consecutive year in 2014 and Russia was China's ninth-largest trade partner.

Nevertheless, a close look at the numbers reveals that energy exports account for a lion's share of the bilateral trade, unlike China's all-encompassing commerce with the US or Europe. The heavy reliance on oil and gas exports narrows the scope for deeper economic engagement.

Another area of strategic competition between Beijing and Moscow lies in Central Asia, where both Russia and China are vying for influence. The region is rich in natural resources and offers a land link connecting China to Europe. While Beijing seeks to boost its economic and political ties with the Central Asian states, Moscow fears a loss of its clout in the region's former Soviet Republics.

On the agenda

Analyst Small argues that while the two sides retain a certain level of mutual suspicion, this has not precluded actions of real strategic significance such as Russia's sale of advanced missile systems to China such as the S-400 - a development that would have been very hard to have occurred without the events in Ukraine.

During Xi's latest trip to Russia, experts say, a joint statement is expected to be inked on strengthening the China-Russia partnership and advocating cooperation. According to the Chinese Foreign Ministry, the two nations will also sign a number of cooperative documents in areas including energy, aerospace, taxation, finance and investment.

APEC Gipfel Wladimir Putin und Xi Jinping
China and Russia inked a 30-year gas supply contract last yearImage: AFP/Getty Images/G. Baker

"In addition to a new potential deal on Russian gas supplies via pipeline using the western route to China, the two nations are also expected to finalize an agreement on development of a joint Russia-China military helicopter," economist Biswas told DW.

Xi's visit to Moscow will also probably be marked by the signing of a Russia-China agreement on cyber cooperation, said Carnegie director Trenin, underlining that this would be the first bilateral pact aimed at cyber defense against the US. Trenin says that given this enhanced level of Sino-Russian strategic cooperation, ties between both countries are taking on a new quality, of an even closer 'entente.'"