Why Putin Is Betting On China

Analysis: After getting elected to a third term, Russian President Vladimir Putin skipped last month's G8 in the US, and spent three long days in China this week. You do the math.

Side-by-side, Hu and Putin (Kremlin)
Side-by-side, Hu and Putin (Kremlin)
Chen Qin

BEIJING - President Vladimir Putin has concluded his three-day visit in China. The arrival of an "old friend" seems to have warmed up Sino-Russian relations. However, the interplay of major powers is inevitably more a struggle of interests, a back-and-forth battle, in which the end game is that both parties should get what they want.

Sergei Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, used the term "unprecedented" to describe the two countries' relations before President Putin set out on his trip. On his arrival the People's Daily published a long text written by Mr. Putin himself – an unusual honor.

At the official Sino-Russian Summit held on Wednesday, China's President Hu Jintao stated "Better and more intimate relations between China and Russia is a blessing for the two countries, as well as to the world."

As for President Putin, he stressed a "Russian–Chinese comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership that continues to reach an unprecedented high level." The joint declaration of the two heads of state, as well as a series of agreements that followed, create an almost heart-warming image of cordial Sino-Russian relations.

Since the first visit of President Putin in 2000, this is the eighth time that he has come to China. Last month he refused to attend the G8 summit held in the United States. Since he re-took office on May 7th, not only was China scheduled in his first round of foreign trips, it was also the destination with the longest stay. All this demonstrates China's importance in his eye.

Big targets, big problems

Why is that? Put simply, Putin needs China. His need is even stronger than it was 12 years ago when he came for his first visit.

Russia's struggles with economic growth and transformation, as well as the accumulating domestic opposition, require an urgent response as Putin begins his third term as president.

One of his election campaign promises was to push Russia's GDP from its current global ranking of 11th, into the top 5 over the next decade.

China's economy is slowing down, but in comparison with the twist and turns of the US and European economies it nevertheless looks far more attractive for Russia. Putin has clearly expressed his willingness to "sail Russia's economic boat alongside the Chinese boat."

In this context, regardless of the various positions taken, for example the joint announcement of the two states' attitude towards the Syrian issue, or the signatures on other agreements, the focus of his trip this time was trade.

Externally, Putin would like to use China to balance the US influence in the region. During the presidential campaign, he ran into a war of words with America over the question of fairness of the election itself. When he eventually won, the official congratulatory message from Washington only congratulated the Russian people. Putin's name was not even mentioned.

Recently, the US announced a strategic military redeployment in the Asia-Pacific region. It is also leading NATO in the deployment of a missile defense system near Russia's western border. Although NATO has repeatedly stressed that this is not aimed at Russia, Putin is obviously not convinced.

With regard to international affairs, China and Russia have held similar attitudes towards the issues of Syria and Iran. Moreover, since America's focus is shifting eastward, the subtle diplomatic game has altered relations between the big powers and has led to closer and closer Sino-Russian relations.

Putin put it bluntly: "In the absence of the participation of Russia and China, and without considering the interests of Russia and China, any international issue will fail to be discussed and implemented."

However, behind the appearance of this united front, the two allies' relations actually remain quite distant. China is unhappy that Russia sells arms to Vietnam, and the stalemate in gas negotiations between the two states found no breakthrough during Putin's visit.

Read the original article in Chinese

Photo - Kremlin

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

For if nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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