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2014-05-22 18:40:00



A visit by Russia's President Vladimir Putin to Beijing would be an important event, at any time. But, coming on the heels of Moscow's military interventions in Ukraine, it takes on a special significance.

With Russian relations with the West in the deep freeze over the Ukraine crisis, it is clearly in the Kremlin's interest to improve ties with China. Beijing is likely to prove a willing partner. They too have an increasingly tense strategic relationship with the US. Meanwhile, the Americans will be watching nervously from the sidelines.

The network of relations has echoes of the strategic triangle between the US, the USSR and China during the Cold War.

In the 1970s, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger's unexpected "opening to China" allowed the US to wrong-foot the Soviet Union. The Russians will be hoping that this time, it is they who will be able to exclude the US from the triangle. The closeness of Russian-Chinese relations will be underlined on this visit, when President Xi Jinping and Mr Putin open joint naval exercises.

Another key element of the summit is meant to be the signature of a Russian-Chinese agreement on gas.

The deal is clearly in the interests of both sides. With the EU seeking to diversify away from its dependence on Russia, it is very useful for Moscow to cement its ties with a giant, alternative customer. For China, which is very short of energy, imports from Russia will make it less dependent on oil and gas from the Middle East, which has to be imported through vulnerable sea lanes. (Some 80 per cent of imported Chinese oil passes through the Strait of Malacca, between Singapore and Indonesia.) A new pipeline would have to be constructed – but that could be done in four-five years.

Despite the obvious mutual Russian-Chinese interest in a gas deal, the two sides were still haggling over the price, in advance of Mr Putin's arrival in Beijing. But it would be a major surprise and a setback, if a deal was not signed.

Russia is also looking for a confirmation that China does not share the West's outrage about the annexation of Crimea.

Chinese neutrality on this issue would ease the diplomatic pressure that Russia is under. Some in the West have speculated that China is deeply uneasy about the annexation of Crimea because it is a violation of national sovereignty and the principle of non-interference – ideas that China normally supports vociferously. But this seems to me to be a misreading of the probable Chinese response.

The fact is that China has many territorial disputes of its own in Asia – with Vietnam, the Philippines, India and, above all, Japan. If Russia can demonstrate that disputed territory can be seized – and that the US is unable to prevent or reverse that development – the Chinese are likely to be pleased.

A further development to look out for from Mr Putin's visit is an increase in Russian arms-sales to China. The two sides are likely to agree to jointly produce Russia's giant Mi-26 helicopter on Chinese soil – something that would add greatly to China's ability to project power.

Of course, behind the displays of amity, there remains a degree of Russian-Chinese mistrust and rivalry – something that Mr Kissinger skilfully exploited in the 1970s.

In the long run, the two countries interests may bash into each other in Central Asia. Mr Putin has made it very clear that he sees the development of a Eurasian Union as central to his strategic vision for Russia – which was the source of his dispute with Europe over Ukraine. At the end of May the Russian president intends to sign a deal on the Eurasian Union with Kazakhstan and Belarus. But China's economic power means that much of Central Asia is naturally being drawn into Beijing's sphere of influence – and China has announced its own plans to develop a "new Silk road" through Central Asia.

Yet that rivalry between Russia and China is likely to remain latent for now. Expect an impressive display of friendship and solidarity over the next few days.




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