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Putin’s China visit shows warming ties between neighboring giants

Newly inaugurated Russian President Vladimir Putin begins a two-day visit to China Tuesday that is expected to focus on the rapidly growing economic ties between the two giants.

Newly inaugurated Russian President Vladimir Putin begins a two-day visit to China Tuesday that is expected to focus on the rapidly growing economic ties between the two giants and underscore their shared stances on burning international controversies such as Syria.

The Kremlin hopes the visit will emphasize the vast improvements made in the historically tense relationship between Russia and China since Mr. Putin first came to power more than a decade ago. Longstanding disputes along their 2,500-mile mutual frontier have been settled, cross-border trade has burgeoned, security cooperation has increased, and the two find themselves more and more on the same page in confronting what they see as Western attempts to dictate the shape of the global order.

“Russia finds political dialogue with China easier than with our Western counterparts, and Putin believes that Russia and China are two giants that have strong mutual responsibilities” to take a principled stand for things they jointly believe in, says Sergei Markov, vice president of the Plekhanov Economic University in Moscow and a frequent adviser to Putin. 

“It’s also a fact that Western economies are in crisis just now, while Asia is still seeing growth. All this justifies the qualitative improvements we are hoping to accomplish in our relationship with China. The importance of our growing cooperation can’t be stressed enough,” he says.

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Putin will attend the annual summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which is led by Russia and China and includes most of the former Soviet Central Asian states. The SCO is the only major international group that has neither the US nor any of its close allies among its members; its Central Asian security role is bound to become increasingly important as NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan draws closer.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who will be present as a SCO observer, is slated to meet Putin on the sidelines to lobby for Russian support for the Iranian negotiating position in the upcoming Moscow round of the P5 + 1 talks between the great powers and Iran over its nuclear energy program. Kremlin foreign policy adviser Yuri Ushakov told the official RIA-Novosti agency that Russia’s basic stance at the meeting will be to “promote the thought that Iran’s right to develop peaceful energy under the oversight of the International Atomic Energy Agency should be approved.”

But the issue of Syria, which has put Russia and China at loggerheads with most Western powers, is likely to dominate the headlines from Beijing. In meetings late last week with France‘s new president, François Hollande, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, as well as at a Russia-European Union summit in St. Petersburg today, Putin stood his ground in resisting any new sanctions or international intervention aimed at removing embattled leader Bashar al-Assad from power, instead insisting that the international community focus on implementation of a peace plan formulated by UN special envoy Kofi Annan.

“We have friendly relations with Syria spanning many years, but we do not support either of the sides generating the threat of a civil war,” Putin said in his meeting with Ms. Merkel on June 1, according to his official Kremlin website. “Today, we already see the emerging elements of a civil war. This is highly dangerous. Annan is the former Secretary General of the UN and a very experienced person. I think that we must all focus on helping him. Our goal is to stop the violence, regardless of who is perpetuating it.”

That tracks closely with the official Chinese position. “At present, the realistic plan for resolving the Syrian issue remains Annan’s six points and his peace plan,” The People’s Daily, the Chinese Communist Party newspaper, wrote in an official commentary.

But the important news that will probably be overshadowed by the Syria controversy is the enormous growth in Russia-China economic relations. Bilateral trade topped $80 billion last year, making China Russia’s biggest trading partner, and is expected to hit $100 billion by 2015. The main trade items remain Russian arms, energy, and engineering goods and Chinese consumer products. 

According to Mr. Markov, Russia and China are increasingly eschewing use of the US dollar and using their own currencies to conduct bilateral trade.

“This is a growing trend, to denote deals in yuan or rubles, instead of going via the dollar as in the past, and it reflects growing confidence in our partnership,” he says.

Accompanying Putin to Beijing will be the chief of state-owned Russian Railways, Vladimir Yakunin, who is pushing an ambitious, multibillion-dollar, decade-long project to build a Russian wide-gauge rail line, dubbed the “Eurasian land bridge,” between Vienna, Austria, and the Russian Pacific far east, which would make possible rapid and direct land transport between Western Europe and East Asia for the first time, even for heavy cargo. Russia hopes to eventually extend the rail link deep into China and perhaps as far as Seoul, South Korea, if the perennial political crisis with North Korea can be settled.

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But many Russian experts say the current improvements in the Russia-China relationship are deceptively impressive, and would not be so notable if Russia’s ties with the West were not so troubled by political disputes and clouded by financial crisis in Europe.

“In Russia’s foreign policy doctrine, China is the third priority, after the post-Soviet region and the European Union,” says Dmitry Babich, an expert with the official RIA-Novosti news agency. 

“Russia and China have lots of differences and problems in their relationship; the surface appearance that things are going so well between them just now is a clear indication that our European policy is facing failure,” he adds.