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[Analytics] China looks to Russia, Central Asia for support amid tensions with US

Xi Jinping has met Vladimir Putin more times than any other foreign leader since he took power in 2013. Photo: AFP. Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

Pan Pacific Agency | COMMUICATION AGENCY FOR PACIFICA REGIONS

President Xi Jinping will meet Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin next month and address economic summit in St Petersburg. Diplomatic flurry will also include regional security forums in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Laura Zhou specially for the South China Morning Post.

Beijing is stepping up efforts to seek support from regional and global players such as Russia and Central Asian nations as its geostrategic rivalry with Washington heats up.

President Xi Jinping is expected to meet his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin next month, when he will also address the St Petersburg International Economic Summit, Russian presidential aide Yuri Ushakov told state-run TASS news agency earlier.

The Chinese president will also visit the Kyrgyzstan capital Bishkek for the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in June, as well as another regional security forum in Dushanbe, Tajikistan.
Meanwhile, Vice-President Wang Qishan is visiting Pakistan before he heads to the Netherlands and Germany, according to the Chinese foreign ministry.

The latest flurry of diplomatic activity comes as competition between China and the US intensifies on several fronts including trade and technology, the South China Sea and the Arctic, where Beijing’s partnership with Moscow – funding and building ports, berths and icebreakers off Russia’s shores – has drawn criticism from Washington.

It will be Xi’s second time at the St Petersburg forum, and observers expect the Chinese leader will reaffirm Beijing’s commitment to multilateralism and promote the nation as a champion of openness and cooperation.

It will also be his second meeting with Putin in two months, after talks on the sidelines of the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing in late April, when the Russian president offered his support for the controversial China-led infrastructure and investment initiative.

With China and Russia edging closer, the latest meeting is likely to see efforts to coordinate their strategies on a range of issues – including Venezuela, North Korea, nuclear weapons and arms control, according to observers. Xi has met Putin more times than any other foreign leader since he took power in 2013.

“This time it is very likely that the latest anti-China moves by the US, such as new tariffs and the Huawei ban, will feature prominently in their conversations,” said Artyom Lukin, an associate professor at Far Eastern Federal University in Vladivostok.

Lukin said Russia’s stagnating economy and sanctions imposed by the West limited its role as a substitute for the foreign markets and technologies China could lose access to because of the US crusade. But he said Putin would “provide political and moral support to Xi”.

“That is also significant as Russia has been withstanding intense US-led sanctions pressure for more than five years already,” Lukin said, referring to sanctions imposed after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Xi and Putin are also expected to talk about Venezuela, where US-backed opposition leader Juan Guaido is attempting to oust socialist President Nicolas Maduro, who has the support of China and Russia.

“Moscow and Beijing are not able to seriously hurt Washington by raising tariffs or denying access to high technology. However, there are plenty of areas where coordinated Sino-Russian policies can damage US interests in the short term or in the long run,” Lukin said. “For example, Moscow and Beijing could intensify their joint support for the Venezuelan government of Nicolas Maduro, frustrating Washington’s efforts to dislodge him.”

China and Russia would also be seeking to boost economic ties. Bilateral trade, dominated by Chinese imports of gas and oil, reached US$108 billion last year – falling far short of the target set in 2011 by Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, of US$200 billion by 2020.

Li Lifan, an associate research professor at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, said bilateral trade was a sticking point. “This is one of the potential hindrances in China-Russia relations and Beijing is hoping to [address this] … in the face of a possible global economic slowdown,” Li said.

Given the escalating trade war with Washington, he said China would seek to diversify its investments and markets to other parts of the world, particularly Russia and Europe.

“China will step up its investment cooperation with Europe and Russia and focus more on multilateral investment,” Li said.

But Beijing was not expected to do anything to worsen tensions with Washington.

“China is currently taking a very cautious approach towards the US, trying to avoid heating up the confrontation and further aggravation of the situation,” said Danil Bochkov, a contributing author with the Russian International Affairs Council. “For China it is important to demonstrate that it has a reliable friend – Russia – but that should not be done in an openly provocative manner.”

Stephen Blank, a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, said Beijing and Moscow would also seek to contain US influence “as far as possible” from Central Asia, where China has increased its engagement through infrastructure building under the “Belt and Road Initiative”.

Leaders from the region will gather in Bishkek next month for the SCO summit, a security bloc set up in 2001 that now comprises China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, India and Pakistan. Those members account for about 23 per cent of the world’s land mass, 45 per cent of its population, and 25 per cent of global GDP.

There is growing speculation that Xi will meet newly re-elected Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the sidelines of that summit.

Independent analyst and author Namrata Goswami said India would be seeking a commitment to a WTO-led and rules-based multilateral trading system during the SCO talks.

“This is interesting and significant given the current US tendencies under President Donald Trump focused on ‘America first’ and the US-China trade war,” Goswami said.

Counterterrorism will again be a top priority at the SCO summit, amid concerns among member states about the rising number of Islamic State fighters returning from Syria and Iraq. Chinese scholars estimated last year that around 30,000 jihadists who had fought in Syria had gone back to their home countries, including China.

Alexander Bortnikov, chief of the main Russian intelligence agency FSB, said earlier that 5,000 fighters from a group affiliated with Isis had gathered in areas bordering former Soviet states in Central Asia, saying most of them had fought alongside Isis in Syria.

War-torn Afghanistan, which shares a border with four SCO member states – China, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan – is also likely to be high on the agenda at the Bishkek summit.

“With the Trump administration drafting plans to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, the SCO will assess the security situation there and decide whether to provide training for Afghan troops,” Li said.

Eva Seiwert, a doctoral candidate at the Free University of Berlin, expected the security bloc would also discuss Iran after the US withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal and ordered new sanctions against the country.

Iran, which has observer status with the SCO, was blocked from becoming a full member in 2008 because it was subject to UN sanctions at the time. But its membership application could again be up for discussion.

“The Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018 made it easy for China and Russia to present themselves as the proponents of peaceful settlement of conflicts,” Seiwert said. “Discussing the possibility of admitting Iran as a full member state would help the SCO members demonstrate their support of multilateral and peaceful cooperation.

“This would be a strong signal to the US and enhance the SCO’s standing in the international community,” she said.

As well as security, Xi’s visit to Central Asia is also likely to focus on economic ties. Meeting Kyrgyz President Sooronbay Jeenbekov in Bishkek last week, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said Beijing would continue to “provide support and help national development and construction in Kyrgyzstan”.

Li said China may increase investment in the Central Asian region, especially in greenfield projects.
“China will continue to buy agriculture products from Central Asia, such as cherries from Uzbekistan, and build hydropower projects to meet local energy demand,” Li said. “Investment in solar and wind energy projects is also expected to increase too.”

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