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.

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