World Economy

China's Xi calls Putin his 'best friend' against a backdrop of souring US relations

Key Points
  • Russia and China appear to be intent on strengthening their alliance.
  • Chinese President Xi Jinping started a three-day state visit to Russia on Wednesday.
  • Xi will speak at Russia's economic forum in St. Petersburg on Friday.
Chinese President Xi meets with Putin on a three-day visit to Russia
Chinese President Xi meets with Putin on a three-day visit to Russia

Chinese President Xi Jinping has described Russian President Vladimir Putin as his "best friend" during a three day state-visit to Russia.

"In the past six years, we have met nearly 30 times. Russia is the country that I have visited the most times, and President Putin is my best friend and colleague," Xi said at a press conference Wednesday afternoon.

Russia and China appear to be intent on strengthening their alliance and fostering deeper cooperation in the face of increased political and economic hostility from the U.S. That bid to strengthen bilateral ties continues this week with Xi visiting the country for top-level talks with Putin.

Welcoming Xi to the Kremlin on Wednesday, Putin said ties between Russia and China stood at "an unprecedented level." Xi echoed that sentiment by saying that the countries' relations had withstood "trials and tribulations" over the years and were now better than ever.

"We've managed to take our relationship to the highest level in our history," Xi said. "We will continue to improve our ties and we are ready to go hand in hand with you," he told Putin at the leaders' initial meeting that was broadcast online.

Talks, deals and pandas

Putin and Xi attended an event Wednesday evening to mark the 70th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries. The event came after three hours of what Putin reportedly described as "candid and intense" talks between the leaders, and the signing of agreements related to deepening political, defense and trade relations.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping attend a welcoming ceremony for two Chinese giant pandas - male Ru Yi and female Ding Ding - at the Moscow zoo on June 5, 2019.

They signed two statements committing to both "the development of strategic cooperation and comprehensive partnership" between their nations and "strengthening strategic stability (which) includes international issues of mutual interest, as well as issues of global strategic stability," Russian news agency TASS reported.

In addition, the leaders agreed to expand strategic contacts between the countries' defense ministries and armed forces. Around 30 intergovernmental and commercial agreements have been signed during Xi Jinping's state visit to Russia, TASS said. One of the deals saw Russia's top mobile phone operator MTS and China's Huawei sign an agreement to develop 5G technology in Russia.

A spot of "Panda diplomacy" was also on show after the talks Wednesday as Xi presented two pandas, Ru Yi and Ding Ding, to Moscow's zoo. If relations deteriorate the pandas could always go home – Beijing has only loaned them to Moscow for 15 years as part of a joint research project, Reuters reported.

Xi will attend and speak at Russia's annual St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF) that starts Thursday. He will address an audience at the event on Friday.

A new chapter

Ahead of the visit, Xi remarked on the blossoming relationship between the countries and the need to foster stronger ties. "I look forward to charting the course of our future relationship together with President (Vladimir) Putin and to seeing that our comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination will stride into a new era," he told Russia's TASS news agency on Tuesday.

"Our two countries enjoy strong political trust and can always count on each other's firm support on issues concerning our respective core interests and major concerns," he noted.

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Xi said the countries now had new opportunities for growth and "we have the confidence and capability to bring our relations to a new era of greater development at a higher level."

Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Hanhui noted at a press briefing Tuesday that the visit will "be of milestone significance in the development of bilateral relations," and "surely promote greater development ... under the new situation," Xinhua news agency reported.

Strong political trust

The meeting of the two prominent global powers comes as Russia's relations with the U.S. are at a low ebb amid continuing U.S. sanctions on the country (mainly related to Ukraine, the annexation of Crimea and U.S. election interference), and China's relationship with the U.S. is fraught with trade war tensions.

Their traditional economic models — for Russia the export of energy products and for China the export of goods — looks increasingly uncertain.

Both Putin and Xi have vowed to fight protectionist policies, an accusation leveled at their U.S. counterpart. Remarking on the trade relationship, Xi told RIA Novosti this week that trade between the two nations is "especially valuable given the current complex environment of sluggish global trade and investment and surging protectionism in the world."

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Trump: Getting along with Russia, China is a good thing

The international economic forum in St. Petersburg may be one way that Putin and Russia look to showcase the country's potential, but it has already developed strong ties to China. Russia is a partner nation in Chinese economic initiatives such as the Belt and Road infrastructure project and their cooperation in the energy sector has also increased. The partners have also been promoting settlements in ruble and yuan in an attempt to reduce a reliance on the U.S. dollar and other Western currencies, due to Washington's sanctions on Russia and trade pressures on Beijing.

China has become one of Russia's largest trading partners and in 2018, the trade turnover between Russia and China increased by 27.1% from the previous year to $107 billion, according to Russia's Ministry of Economic Development, and trade figures released already for this year show that number increasing.

The chief executive of the Russian Export Center, Andrey Slepnev, said in November that the $100 billion or so worth of mutual Russia-China trade could double in the years ahead. Crude oil, coal, fertilizers and frozen fish are some of the more substantial exports Russia makes to China, according to trade data from the Observatory of Economic Complexity.

Russia, meanwhile, is an important trading partner of China but 2017 data shows it only accounts for 1.8% of China's exports (worth almost $44 billion), compared to the U.S. which accounts for 20%, worth $477 billion in 2017.