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Russia – China, No Limits Partnership:

Sub Title : What does the partnership imply in practical terms – A look at Putin’s recent visi

Issues Details : Vol 18 Issue 2 May – Jun 2024

Author : Ashwani Sharma, Editor-in-Chief

Page No. : 15

Category : Geostrategy

: June 5, 2024

Amid intensifying global scrutiny, the deepening alliance between China and Russia faces challenges as they strive to balance robust ties with strategic diplomacy, navigating complex relations with the West and reinforcing their geopolitical partnership.

When Chinese President Xi Jinping embraced his “old friend” Vladimir Putin while seeing off the Russian leader from Beijing’s Zhongnanhai leadership complex last week, it underscored the close ties between the two nations. Despite the unity displayed during Putin’s second visit to China in just seven months, questions persist about the extent of their “no limits” friendship, involving the largest non-Western global powers.

Observers predict increasing challenges for this alliance, anticipating Beijing’s attempt to maintain a “delicate balance” in its diplomatic engagements with Moscow and the Western nations. This comes as the U.S. and the EU intensify their warnings about China’s purported backing of Russia’s defence industrial sector amid the Ukraine conflict, while Beijing intensifies its efforts, including Xi’s recent European tour, to improve relations with Washington and Brussels. Putin wrapped up his two-day visit to China with a stop in Harbin, a city in north-eastern China known for its Russian heritage and as a crucial conduit between the two nations.

This marked Putin’s first international travel since beginning his fifth term, with Xi having similarly chosen Moscow for his inaugural foreign trip in March last year after starting an unprecedented third term as China’s president. This reciprocal action highlights the symbolic importance of Putin’s recent visit, further strengthening his personal connection with Xi.

The pair, having met 43 times since 2013, plan to meet again in Kazakhstan in July. In Harbin, the capital of Heilongjiang—a northernmost Chinese province bordering Russia—Putin advocated for enhanced bilateral trade and more Chinese investments in Russia’s Far East. This region is pivotal in his strategy to “pivot to the East” to counteract economic pressures from the West. Unlike itineraries for other international dignitaries, Putin also visited the Harbin Institute of Technology, a top Chinese defence research university with deep ties to the Chinese military, signalling growing security cooperation between the two nuclear nations.

Just a day before, Beijing and Moscow announced in a statement post-discussions between Xi and Putin that they would expand their joint military drills, conduct regular joint naval and aerial patrols, and collaborate on space programs. In a joint declaration last week to deepen their strategic partnership on the 75th anniversary of their diplomatic ties, both countries pledged to foster even tighter cooperation in their energy and financial sectors.

Russia has risen to become China’s fourth-largest trading partner in 2023, surpassing Germany and Australia, while China has been Russia’s top trading partner for 14 consecutive years.A senior U.S. intelligence official noted in March that Russia’s reliance on China, North Korea, and Iran has grown as the Ukraine war continues to strain its resources. Xi reiterated China’s call for a “political settlement” to the conflict in Ukraine during Putin’s visit.

Putin described their discussions as “very substantive,” noting that they spent “virtually the entire day” together. His trip coincided with Russian military advancements around Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, and shortly after Putin reshuffled his cabinet, appointing a civilian economist as the new defence minister in anticipation of a summer offensive in Ukraine.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky last week warned that Russia could escalate its offensive and called on China to participate in a June peace summit in Switzerland.

Xi’s recent European visits to France, Serbia, and Hungary—his first European tour in over five years—also brought Beijing’s relationship with Moscow into sharp focus. Kyiv and several Western capitals have urged China to leverage its influence over Russia to help end the war.

While a quasi-alliance with Russia could counterbalance the influence of Washington and its allies, it might also hinder China’s efforts to ease tensions with two of its biggest trading partners, as the world’s second-largest economy seeks to restore confidence among foreign investors. Amid these complexities, Beijing is expected to strike a balance between sustaining its strategic ties with Moscow and avoiding confrontations with the West, facing the prospect of new US sanctions.