The leaders of the world’s largest country and its most populous will hold talks on Wednesday, with Moscow and Beijing publicly committed to strengthening their ties amid increasingly strained relations between East and West.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping are set to speak as both nations have been embroiled in a series of worsening rows with the US and its allies in recent weeks. Russia is accused of plotting an all-out attack on neighboring Ukraine, which Moscow has consistently denied. Speculation has also swirled that China could order a military operation to take Taiwan, which Beijing insists is its sovereign territory despite being out of its control for the past seven decades.
Xi has previously described Putin as his “best friend” and one of his country’s closest allies on the world stage, with the pair insisting they are united in the face of Western sanctions and political pressure. However, despite increasing military and economic co-operation, a number of analysts have pointed out that the two powers are far less integrated than blocs like NATO.
Earlier this year, Putin claimed that ties between Moscow and Beijing “have reached the highest level in history,” while Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi insisted both countries “have always been the pillars of peace and stability in the world.” According to him, “the more unstable and turbulent the world is, the more decisive cooperation between China and Russia will become.”
What could be on the agenda?
Speaking ahead of the call, Kremlin Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov told journalists it will be an opportunity for “extremely important talks.” He went on to add that Russia expects the discussion to be “a fairly long contact, with a very broad agenda.”
Speaking at a regular press conference on Monday, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Wang Wenbin told TASS that Beijing “expects and believes that this video conference will further enhance our high-level mutual trust, vigorously promote China-Russia ‘back-to-back’ strategic coordination and the robust development of all-round practical cooperation.” According to him, “this will provide more stability and positive energy for the complex and fluid international landscape.”
Unlike last week’s meeting, which saw US President Joe Biden meet with Putin via a secure video-link, “the first part of the conversation will be open to the press,” Peskov said, referring to the exchange of the initial speeches.
Peskov added that there will be an exchange of views on current international affairs, especially on the European continent, which he described as being now “very tense,” and requiring “discussion among allies, between Moscow and Beijing.” Russia has accused Western nations of destabilizing the region by shipping hardware towards its borders, while American politicians have argued that Moscow poses an existential threat to Eastern Europe.
The official also said that the two heads of state will discuss the perceived “very aggressive rhetoric from both NATO and the US,” which he said is a vital topic for talks between Putin and Xi. In October, Russian and Chinese warships joined forces for the first time to stage a patrol mission in the Pacific Ocean. The exercises came shortly after the unveiling of the Washington-backed nuclear submarine pact with Britain and Australia, known as ’AUKUS’, which was widely billed as having been designed to counter China’s influence in the region. Moscow joined Beijing in panning the project, arguing it could begin a worldwide arms race.
Speaking the month before, a top US general gave a stark warning about the risk of deteriorating ties with the two giant states. Vice Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff General John E. Hyten told a think-tank meeting that conflict could easily spiral out of control. “We never fought the Soviet Union,” he said. “As for the great powers, our goal is to never go to war with China and Russia.” According to Hyten, such an event would “destroy the world and the global economy. It will be bad for everyone, and we have to ensure that we do not go down that path.”
A range of other topics are expected to appear on the line-up, including energy, technological cooperation, and joint investment trade, as well as regional issues.
Both Russia and China are said to be increasingly looking to shift away from the use of the US dollar as the primary currency of international trade, using their own denominations to underpin the growing volume of trade between the two. In a visit to Beijing in March, Moscow’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, said that “the US has declared its mission is to limit the technological development opportunities of both the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China.”
According to him, the two countries could insulate themselves from the risk of sanctions and political rivalries by “switching to settlements in national currencies and in world currencies, alternative to the dollar,” adding that “we need to move away from the use of Western-controlled international payment systems.”
While much has been made of the strengthening partnership between the two countries, some analysts have claimed that Moscow risks being dwarfed by the size of Beijing’s economy, while others insist that China’s growing influence in Central Asia, including in former Soviet republics like Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, could collide with Russia’s sphere of interests.
Just last week, former US President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, said that Moscow could find itself becoming a vassal of Beijing if it did not act along with Washington to contain Beijing. He insisted that “I would like Russia to realize there are issues where we can find common ground, such as the China issue … Russia faces the risk of becoming an appendage of China, which I have mentioned many times in talks, including with Russian partners.”
Despite that, Moscow’s top envoy in Beijing has previously insisted that the two nations can have productive relations without deeply entwining themselves to fight a mutual enemy. Andrey Denisov, Russia’s ambassador to the East Asian nation, wrote in June that “I believe that a formal alliance, especially a military-political one, is not the most optimal scheme for relations between such two powers as Russia and China.”
According to him, “interaction is not directed against third countries,” as is sometimes the case with factions on the world stage. “The foreign policy of our respective states is not based on the logic of a factional approach or confrontation with anyone else,” he said. Such geopolitical groupings, like NATO, he said, “are often characterized by an imbalance in the influence of different countries, and the emergence of those who are leading and those who are led.