Moscow and Beijing ended today in the Russian Far East, the Trans-Baikal region, one of the largest war games since the height of the Cold War. The military exercises are only the latest example of the deepening ties between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping, which were also showcased last week in Vladivostock at the Eastern Economic Forum. Last week’s conference, hosted by Putin, represented only the latest attempt by the Russian to assert itself more in Asia-Pacific in growing partnership with China with which it has a burgeoning bilateral dialogue over key regional and global economic and political issues such as North Korea. The theme of the Vladivostock forum — ‘The Russian Far East: expanding the range of possibilities’ — underlines Putin’s big ambition.
Not only did the Russian president meet with Xi, he also engaged with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, South Korean Prime Minister Lee Nak-yeon, and Indian Commerce Minister Suresh Prabhu. A key reason Putin is putting renewed emphasis on Asia-Pacific is that his relations with western powers are generally so strained.
This follows years of sanctions over Ukraine and Crimea; concerns over Moscow’s alleged extensive meddling in a suite of western elections. Plus the attempted murder in England of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, which has been widely blamed, internationally, on Moscow.
The Russian president is seeking strengthened relations not just with China, but a host of Asia-Pacific powers. Last Monday, for instance, Abe and Putin made further moves towards clearing the pathway for progress towards a peace treaty on the disputed islands off Japan’s northernmost main island of Hokkaido, which was seized by the former Soviet Union at the end of the Second World War. These islands are now controlled by Moscow, but claimed by Tokyo, and have been a long-running sore in relations.
Yet, it is Xi with whom the Russian president has formed the strongest relationship. The Chinese head-of-state had asserted in June that bilateral relations are at “the highest level, most profound and strategically most significant relationship between major countries in the world”, and also praised Putin by stating that he “is my best, most intimate friend”.
Perhaps the most-cited area of these warmer ties is on the political and security front. For instance, the ‘war games’ in the Trans-Baikal region in Russia’s Far East involved some 300,000 troops, including 3,000 from China.
However, outside the political and security domain, China and Russia also enjoy an extensive economic dialogue that has deepened since Moscow’s annexation of Crimea. For instance, a $2 billion (Dh7.35 billion) deal was signed last week in Vladivostock between the Alibaba Group and Mail.ru Group. Russia had also previously announced plans for numerous cooperation projects with China, including a new method of inter-bank transfers and a joint credit agency that seeks to create a shared financial and economic infrastructure that will allow them to function independently of western-dominated financial institutions.
China and Russia are also among the states involved in creating alternative forums to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, including the New Development Bank. This will finance infrastructure and other projects in the Brics states [Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa] and a related $100 billion special currency reserve fund.
Moreover, in the energy sector, the two states have signed a $400 billion natural gas supply deal, which will see an approximately 2,000-mile (3,218km) gas pipeline from eastern Siberia to northeast China. And they have agreed to construct a second major gas pipeline from western Siberia to China’s Xinjiang province.
Moscow has also opened parts of its upstream oil-and-gas sector to direct investment from Beijing. Moreover, Chinese firms have also stepped in to provide Russian counterparts with technology. Chinese banks have become an important source of credit for Russian businesses in the wake of western sanctions.
The boost to the bilateral cooperation agenda has helped enable work towards stronger common positions on key regional and global issues, too. This includes North Korea, with which both Russia and China have land borders and were its allies in the Korean conflict in the early 1950s.
In the context of this week’s summit between Seoul and Pyongyang, North Korea was a significant theme of the Vladivostock summit, discussed not just by Xi and Putin, but also by Abe and Lee. Beijing, Moscow and Tokyo, too, cautiously welcomed June’s Singapore summit between United States President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, and they are all concerned that they shouldn’t become passive bystanders, wanting instead to reinforce their interests as key players in the grand geopolitical game that is now potentially being played out on the peninsula if the peace process does not unravel.
To this end, Putin hopes to meet Kim in coming months and had invited South Korean President Moon Jae-in to Moscow in June — the first such visit by a sitting South Korean president since 1999 — in a bid to stamp his own influence. A key part of this discussion was Moon’s promotion of his ‘New Northern Policy’ under which Seoul is seeking to improve ties with Eurasian neighbours that could, for instance, see it seeking to persuade Pyongyang to link transport networks along the western and eastern corridors of the peninsula and potentially extend them to China and Russia.
Taken overall, with western-Russian rapprochement looking increasing uncertain, Putin is placing more emphasis on Asia-Pacific as Vladivostock has showed. While his ambition is to have warmer ties with a range of regional powers — including Japan, India and the Koreas — the super-priority remains China, with his closeness with Xi underpinning a significant warming of the bilateral relationship.
Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.