HONG, KONG/MOSCOW – Chinese President Xi Jinping and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, likely had more than vodka shots and gifts of ice cream to show for their warming relationship after their planned meeting this weekend on the sidelines of a developing nations’ summit in India.
Recent months have seen greater security cooperation between Russia and China as they find common ground against the U.S. The neighboring giants last month held their first joint naval drill in the South China Sea and both have condemned U.S. plans to deploy a U.S. missile shield in South Korea. A Russian general said last week the military was working with China to counter an expansion of U.S. missile defenses, which they see as upsetting the balance between the three nuclear powers.
“The fact that both countries started to talk about joint actions on the military level is a very serious development,” said Vasily Kashin, a senior fellow of Russian Academy of Science’s Far Eastern Studies Institute. “The threat from U.S. missile defense pushes both China and Russia closer to each other. For Russia and China, the policy of containment is the containment of the U.S. first of all.”
The moves show how the rapport between Xi and Putin — as shown by frequent visits and personal gifts — has begun to foster more formal security ties. Their encounter on the sidelines of the BRICS summit in the Indian resort region of Goa was to be their fourth this year and their 19th one-on-one meeting since Xi took power 2012. China saw a surge in Russian ice cream sales last month after Putin brought some for Xi, and Putin told China’s state broadcaster they celebrated his birthday in 2013 by drinking vodka shots “like two college students.”
The development of those ties has coincided with a decline in both nations’ relations with Washington. Russia has provided powerful backing for China’s efforts to challenge the U.S.’ long-standing security dominance in the Asian-Pacific region.
Lt. Gen. Viktor Poznikhir, of the Russian Armed Forces General Staff, said computer command staff from the two countries conducted a missile-defense exercise this year to counter a successful deployment of a U.S. missile shield. “We are working together on ways to minimize possible damage to the security of our countries,” Poznikhir told a security forum in Beijing on Tuesday, adding another exercise was planned for next year.
China, meanwhile, backed Russia’s failed United Nations resolution earlier this month that would’ve urged a cease-fire without a halt to the bombing of Aleppo. It abstained from a competing French-drafted proposal that sought an end to airstrikes and military flights over the besieged city.
“We cannot choose our neighbors and this is a good thing,” Putin said Wednesday in Moscow at a business forum. “Over these last decades, we have developed quite unique relations of trust and mutual support.”
Xi and Putin were likely to discuss International security issues, Chinese officials said. “China and Russia hold the same position on the most important international and regional issues, including on Syria and Afghanistan,” Vice Foreign Minister Li Baodong said.
Russia was China’s largest supplier of foreign oil in August. That relationship has helped make China its top trading partner and provided an economic lifeline to Putin. A recovery in oil prices helped lift two-way trade by 3.6 percent year on the year in the first quarter, according to China Customs figures, after plunging 29 percent to $68 billion last year.
While the countries describe ties as the “best ever,” few expect them to forge a formal military alliance to rival the U.S.-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization. They share a long history of tensions, including a brief Cold War conflict on their 4,200 km (2,600 mile) border. China, with its growing military might, long ago surpassed Russia economically and has been testing the limits of Moscow’s trust with expansions into former Soviet republics in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.
“I definitely think this energized cooperation is significant, but fundamentally Russia and China will put their own interests first,” said Sarah Lain, a research fellow at the London-based Royal United Services Institute who specializes in Russia’s ties to world powers. “They will support each other on things that are of mutual interest, which is usually aimed at demonstrating an alternative power base to that of the U.S.”
Building security ties with Russia requires Xi to revise China’s long-standing opposition to foreign entanglements and comes as he boosts his country’s peacekeeping role in Africa and wades into Middle Eastern issues. China and Russia signed a joint statement during Putin’s visit to Beijing in June, pledging to strengthen “global strategic stability.”
What remains to be seen is whether China would be willing to give Russia greater support in areas where it has relatively few interests, such as Syria and Ukraine, and risk upsetting its Western trading partners. China deployed its first special envoy for the Syrian crisis in March and sent a delegation led by a senior military official there in August for talks with Syrian and Russian officials.
Zheng Yu, a senior researcher with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ Institute of Russian, Eastern European and Central Asian studies, said the country would maintain a balanced approach toward Syria.
“We’ve told Russians that China is only a global economic power, but not a geopolitical superpower yet,” Zheng said. “We only selectively wade in on international hot-spot issues. The Middle East for China is still an unfamiliar battleground of global players.”
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