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China and Russia are getting closer, but how far?

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This week, China hosted the most senior Russian official to visit the country since the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine began last year.. Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin led a delegation of Russian business elites that toured Beijing and Shanghai, meeting Chinese President Xi Jinping and strengthening ties between the powers at a time of heightened confrontation with the United States and its allies.

Trade between the two countries reached a record $190 billion last year, and it is expected to surpass it in 2023 as Russia tries to offset the cost of US and EU sanctions. Russian energy shipments to China are expected to increase by 40% this year.

“Today, relations between Russia and China are at an unprecedented level,” Mishustin told Chinese Premier Li Qiang in the Chinese capital on Wednesday. He stressed the two countries’ mutual interest in responding to the “collective West’s sensational pressure model”.

During his meeting with Mishustin, a close confidant of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Xi spoke of common geopolitical projects, including further integration of their countries and neighbors into a “bigger regional market”. According to a reading by China’s Xinhua news service, Mishustin responded that his government was “ready to work with China to promote multipolarization in the world and consolidate the international order based on international law.”

It’s jargon that communicates Moscow and Beijing’s shared view of the United States as a potential imperial hegemon, a shared party line that casts the United States as a Cold War tyrant that doesn’t realize that the world has changed and so should his role in the world. (It doesn’t matter who the governments of Moscow and Beijing can intimidate at the same time.)

“The Biden administration seems fully committed to returning humanity to the unipolar world that existed just after the end of the Cold War some 30 years ago, but the White House no longer has enough resources at its disposal to support such an undertaking,” wrote Andrey Kortunov, director general of the Russian Council for International Affairs — a state-funded Russian think tank close to the Foreign Ministry — in China’s state-run Global Times, Thursday “As they say in America: you can’t have champagne on a beer budget.”

Xi’s trip to Russia marks the arrival of a more ambitious ‘Global China’

Mishustin’s stay in China precedes a Friday visit to Moscow by Li Hui, Beijing’s special envoy for Eurasian affairs. Li will meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, among other officials. The flurry of diplomacy comes on the heels of the Group of Seven wealthy democracies leaders’ summit last weekend in Japan, where the United States and some of its close allies released a lengthy statement decrying the record China’s “economic coercion” on the world stage, its human rights abuses in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, and its aggressive actions in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait.

Combined with unreserved support for Ukraine and the presence of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky at the summit, the G-7 seemed to have both Moscow and Beijing firmly in its sights. Statements from the summit “underlined the deepening of the geopolitical divide between China and Russia on the one hand and the United States and its allies on the other”, Ben Bland, director of the Asia-Pacific program, told the Guardian. from the British think tank Chatham House.

“China is ready to double its relations with Russia after the G7 summit, because the central theme of this summit included not only Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but also China and the way the West should deal with it,” Alexander Korolev, a senior lecturer at the University of New South Wales in Australia, told The New York Times.

China was particularly angry with Japan, which hosted the G-7 and is reworking its pacifist constitution after World War II to account for the perceived Chinese threat. News that NATO – the transatlantic military alliance designed to contain and thwart the Kremlin’s ambitions – plans to open a liaison office in Tokyo has only stoked Beijing’s anger.

Key nations walk out of US-Russia-China standoff, leaks show

Chinese Officials and Analysts Openly Warn of “NATO-ization” of Asia-Pacific — the term they invoke for increasing security cooperation and coordination between a host of regional powers and the United States. Lyle Goldstein, a China and Russia expert with the Defense Priorities think tank, told me that NATO’s engagement in Asia “fuels possible Chinese paranoia and serves the Russia’s program to bring [the two countries] Closer to each other.”

The irony is that, despite Washington’s embrace of great power competition with autocrats in Moscow and Beijing, China and Russia are not ironclad allies. Goldstein recently led a research mission to China, interviewing numerous Chinese international affairs experts at several leading academic and political institutions. The impression he gets from the Chinese point of view is one of pessimism: many of his interlocutors are disappointed, even surprised by Russia’s awkwardness and manifest aggressiveness during its invasion of Ukraine, but also recognize that Russia’s utter failure and the collapse of Putin’s regime may not be in China’s interests.

As Russia, pressured by Western sanctions, wants to materialize its supposed “limitless” friendship with Beijing, Chinese officials and analysts speak of the ties between the two countries as not being a full-fledged alliance. Even during the war in Ukraine, China to some extent has kept Russia at bay and will not send finished arms and weapons to bolster the deeply exhausted Russian war machine.

“We have to realize that China is acting with restraint and moderation, and I don’t think that’s appreciated in the West,” Goldstein said.

This restraint could fade as tensions with the West increase, or if Ukraine makes major progress in its spring counteroffensive on territories lost to Russia. In the aftermath of the Russian invasion, Moscow had to contend with its status as China’s “junior partner”, dependent on Chinese buyers for its natural resources and on the Chinese market for a short list of advanced technological products. It’s an uncomfortable historical change that carries over into the tail and can lead to new uncomfortable dynamics.

“Russia’s size and power may give the Kremlin a false sense of security as it locks itself into an asymmetrical relationship with Beijing,” wrote Alexander Gabuev, director of the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center, last month in Foreign. Affairs. “But the sustainability of this relationship, absent major and unpredictable disruptions, will depend on China’s ability to manage a weakening Russia. In the years to come, Putin’s regime will have to learn the skill that junior partners around the world depend on for their survival: how to manage upwards.

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