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China’s Xi makes nice with Putin – but Russia still ‘second-best’ after US

Pool, Reuters | Chinese leader Xi Jinping was in Russia from June 5 to 7.

Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted Chinese leader Xi Jinping at Russia’s top business forum on Friday, showing his country’s desire to supplant the US as China’s trading partner of choice. But for China, it seems that Russia is only second-best.

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Just after Donald Trump exchanged the White House for white tie dress – reveling in the pomp and circumstance of a Buckingham Palace banquet with Her Majesty the Queen, after breaking diplomatic protocol by firing off Twitter salvos against London Mayor Sadiq Khan and extolling the virtues of prime ministerial candidate Boris Johnson – an altogether more low-key visit took place on the other side of Europe.

Following the US president’s state visit to the UK from June 3 to 5, Xi was in Russia for a three-day trip, culminating with his presence alongside Putin at the annual St Petersburg International Economic Forum on Friday.

In the context of US tariff hikes on Chinese goods coming into effect on June 1, Putin excoriated the “rhetoric of trade war and sanctions” he saw as emanating from “unrestrained political egoism” in Washington.

Putin wants to present Russia as ‘credible alternative’

“Putin’s goal at this meeting was to present Russia as a credible alternative to the US for China when it comes to trade,” Jean-François Dufour, a specialist on the Chinese economy and director of the French consultancy DCA Chine-Analyse, told FRANCE 24.

Indeed, Moscow was at pains to point out how much economic ties with Beijing have deepened over recent years – noting that Sino-Russian trade grew by 25 percent in 2018, passing the $100 billion (€88 million) mark for the first time.

The Russian government was also keen to highlight the $20 billion (€17.5 billion) worth of contracts signed at the summit, in addition to strengthening trade links in technology and agriculture – two strategic sectors for China.

Notably, after Beijing put US soybean imports on hold in late May, Moscow has promised to come to its rescue by increasing Russian soybean production – China being the world’s largest importer of this foodstuff. Russia also welcomed Chinese telecommunications company Huawei, which will be responsible for developing the 5G mobile network in the country, with Putin lambasting US moves against it as an attempt to “blatantly squeeze it out of the global market” in “the first technological war of the digital era”.

During the visit Xi rewarded his host with the title of “best friend”, and brought along an impressive delegation of 1,000 business figures. Nevertheless, Dufour argued that “China still considers Russia to be second best, behind the US, and as long as Beijing can avoid too much economic dependence on Moscow, it will”. Xi knows that if he puts too many eggs in the Russian basket, he risks upsetting Washington, Moscow’s chief geopolitical adversary.

A deeper Sino-Russian alignment?

That’s while Russia could do little to contribute to China’s efforts to become the most technologically advanced nation in the world. Beijing’s goal “is not to sell Chinese technology to other countries, but rather develop new technology through partnerships with leading [foreign] companies”, said Dufour. In this respect, Russia has considerably less to offer than the US and European countries.

Aerospace is the only sector in which China is attracted to Russia’s expertise. The two countries are developing a long-range airliner together, the CRAIC C929, which is expected to compete with Boeing and Airbus from 2023. But such co-operation can’t really compete with what China could learn from America.

In addition to its aeronautic savoir-faire, Russia is a “credible alternative to the US when it comes to energy”. China has a 20 percent stake in the Yamal LNG gas megaproject in Siberia – which is expected to become one of the world’s largest production centres for liquefied natural gas.

However, Russia carries such geopolitical weight that – even if Putin isn’t really Xi’s “best friend” – he could become his strongest asset in negotiations with Washington. The Chinese leader could brandish the threat of a deeper alignment with Russia, which would “represent a much bigger threat to the US than the strengthening of economic ties”, Dufour noted.

Indeed, a Sino-Russian axis could significantly hinder the Trump administration’s agenda when it comes to such countries as Venezuela, Iran and Syria.

This article was adapted from the original in French.

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