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China-Russia summit masks a fraught relationship

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin meets Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Tuesday.

Takuro Yabe/Getty Images

The world's two most powerful autocrats – Vladimir Putin and Hu Jintao – will meet in Beijing on Wednesday in what both sides are hailing as something approaching a superpower summit.

Mr. Putin arrived in Beijing Tuesday on his first foreign trip since he announced plans to return to the Kremlin as President in 2012 after four years in the technically junior post of Prime Minister. The visit comes days after Russia and China jointly vetoed a U.S. and European-backed resolution at the United Nations Security Council that could have led to international sanctions against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is considered an ally of both Moscow and Beijing.

The veto, which has sparked fury and the burning of the Russian and Chinese flags by the Syrian opposition, was a sign of "ever-deepening China-Russia co-operation that is sure to bring about a more balanced world," according to an editorial issued Tuesday by China's official Xinhua news service. In other words, a world in which Moscow and Beijing stand together more often against Washington and its allies.

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The Kremlin-owned RT (Russia Today) television channel used more colourful language to deliver the same message in its reporting on Mr. Putin's trip to Beijing, saying the result would be "a critical reshuffle of the world's archaic political stage."

The world got a peek last week at how that rebalanced world might look when Moscow and Beijing stepped in to protect Mr. Assad, who has repeatedly used his army in a bloody effort to crush six months of protests against his rule. Mr. Putin and Mr. Hu are extremely cynical about the West's stated desire to protect Syrian civilians, seeing instead an effort by Washington to topple another authoritarian regime and install a friendly government.

Russia's increasing closeness to China is seen as part of an eastward shift in the Kremlin's foreign affairs and trade policies after decades of focus on Europe. Moscow and Beijing are founding members of the BRICS group of emerging economies (which also includes Brazil, India and South Africa), as well as the Shanghai Co-operation Organization, a loose military grouping that also includes four ex-Soviet states in Central Asia and is sometimes seen as a counterweight to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

The China-Russia partnership is "beneficial to both sides, and in turn serves the interest of the world," read the Xinhua editorial (which also ran a collage of "rarely seen" photos of a young Mr. Putin on its website). "Any Western speculation on the transparent and open partnership will be idle, as it is not targeted at any third party."

China last year surpassed Germany to become Russia's largest trading partner, and the two sides said Tuesday that total trade could more than triple from $70-billion this year to $220-billion by 2020. Key to that sort of economic integration would be a proposed 30-year pact that would see Russia supply energy-thirsty China with up to 68 billion cubic metres of Siberian natural gas each year, a figure that would account for more than 60 per cent of China's 2010 consumption. However, the massive deal – agreed to in principle last year – is still being held up by disagreements over what price Beijing would pay for the Russian natural gas that would be shipped via a pair of yet-to-be-built pipelines. China wants a discounted rate, while Moscow is seeking to charge the same price that it does for gas shipments to Europe.

"In political, humanitarian spheres we have no problems at all; we have reached unprecedented levels of co-operation," Mr. Putin said in remarks at the beginning of his talks Tuesday with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. But he suggested the two sides were still some distance apart in the gas negotiations. "Those who sell always want to sell at a higher price, while those who buy want to buy at a lower price. We need to reach a compromise which will satisfy both sides."

Despite all the warm words, many see the relationship as increasingly unequal – one in which a rising China is seen as becoming more assertive and demanding toward its stagnating neighbour. The gas-price negotiations are just one example.

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"This strategic partnership is important psychologically and ideologically as part of standing up to the U.S., which is the dearest idea of the Russian political class," said Andrei Piontkovsky, a Moscow-based political scientist and writer. "But it's more rhetoric than substance, of course, because each new visit to Beijing just emphasizes that Russia is becoming more and more the junior partner."

Mr. Piontkovsky said the Kremlin worries that China, with its massive population and shortages of resources, may one day look north to resource-rich and thinly populated Siberia. Some military analysts see a recent redeployment of Russian military hardware to its Far East, while theoretically motivated by an island dispute with Japan, as linked to those fears.

Mr. Putin's recent proposal of a Moscow-led "Eurasian Union" that would include the ex-Soviet states of Central Asia (and which would bear strikingly similar borders to the old Soviet Union) is as much an attempt to ward off Chinese influence in that region as an effort to build a rival to the European Union.

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About the Author
Senior International Correspondent

Mark MacKinnon is currently based in London, where he is The Globe and Mail's Senior International Correspondent. In that posting he has reported on the Syrian refugee crisis, the rise of Islamic State, the war in eastern Ukraine and Scotland's independence referendum.Mark recently spent five years as the newspaper's Beijing correspondent. More

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