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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