When Xi Jinping Went To Moscow: The Shifting Logic Of China-Russia Relations

The two world powers and BRICS nations enjoy friendly relations, and both have an interest in expanding economic and political links. Still, there is another big player always looming.

Putin and Xi Jinping at their meeting Friday.
Putin and Xi Jinping at their meeting Friday.
Chen Qin

Xi Jinping has embarked on his first foreign tour as China's new President, with state visits in Russia, Tanzania, South Africa and the Democratic Republic of Congo. He will also attend the fifth meeting of leaders of the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) in Durban, South Africa this week.

For China's leaders, their first foreign destination is usually their big neighbor to the west. Mao Zedong in 1949, Liu Shaoqi in1960, Hu Jintao in 2003 -- all chose Moscow as their first stop. As for Deng Xiaoping after his comeback in 1978, it was Myanmar and for Hu Yaobang in 1983 it was Japan.

However, a Chinese leader's first foreign destination can be determined by particular factors of the moment as well. For instance, when Jiang Zeming first went abroad as head of the state, it was the United States where he first set his feet mainly because he was there to attend the Asian-Pacific APEC summit.

Compared with general overseas activities, a first visit attracts particular attention because it's an important window for the new leader to communicate, domestically and internationally, both his diplomatic direction and strategic stance.

After his second election, President Obama elected Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia as his first destinations, and attended the East Asia summit. It implies that the Asia-Pacific will be at America's diplomatic strategic core in the coming four years. After his return to the Kremlin last year, Vladimir Putin's first round of intensive overseas visits included China and Belarus, which are traditionally friendly with Russia, but also Western countries such as Germany and France. This shows that he is taking into account both the East and the West in his foreign policy.

The reasons why President Xi chose Russia and Africa for his first visits are in part caused by the scheduling needs to attend the BRIC summit, but it also reflects new thinking in Chinese foreign policy: Beijing is starting from a pragmatic stance, with a focus on peripheral diplomacy.

As neighboring big powers, China and Russia's mutual needs are not based on sharing similar core values. Apart from some shared history, the two countries have little in common. In the past two decades, the two have got along in quite a cautious way, neither particularly close nor alienated from one another. They respect one another, while at the same time each goes its own way.

Russia and China are obviously complimentary economically. However, the level of bilateral economic and trade development are not commensurate. The two countries' cooperation in the international arena mainly occurs at the political level, and this very often is not for bilateral reasons but rather because of their similar responses to a third party.

Both keep an eye on Washington

The United States is conducting a high profile return to the Asia-Pacific region. China is gradually becoming strong in East Asia. The regional situation is increasingly tense. Affected by territorial disputes on South China Sea islands and the Diaoyu Islands, China's relations with its neighboring countries are getting cool -- and even downright cold. This context highlights the interest China has in maintaining a stable relationship with Russia.

With China facing increasing pressure from both Asian-Pacific and European countries, as well as America, Russia to a certain extent is backing China's foreign policy. Both countries have also held a similar line in the United Nations Security Council on the Libyan and Syrian issues.

Russia's needs of China is even more apparent. Part of the pull is China's economy, and President Putin expressly stated that Russia's "economic sail" is to ride on the "Chinese wind." But Putin is also drawn to China to balance America's influence in the region.

The starting point of Sino-Russian cooperation is pragmatism. The strategic convergence of the two nations remains mostly on paper. There exist many differences between the two nations.

Nevertheless, because both countries don't expect much from the other, they will be more positive about the fruits of cooperation, and will try better to improve relations. However, there is still a long road to travel for the two countries to forge a bona fide strategic partnership based on mutual trust and political will.

Moreover, the significance of a head of state's first foreign visit is not to be exaggerated. For China in the long term Sino-American relations are still the most important of all. On his visit to the United States in February 2012 prior to his election as China's leader, Xi Jinping's attracted great attention from American government, business and academic circles as well as the media. At his first press conference, Li Keqiang, China's new Prime Minister, mentioned many times the word "interests" when he was evoking Sino-US relations. He stated that as long as interests are talked about, there will be common ground and convergence.

"As long as we respect each other's major concerns and control our differences the common interests will transcend the divergence," he said.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!