Chinese President Xi Jinping has left Beijing to attend the G20 summit in St. Petersburg and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Bishkek, in what is his third overseas visit since he became president in March this year. His trip, which will also include visits to Central Asian countries, has attracted extensive attention. The Chinese and Russian leaders appear very close on the international stage, reflecting the special relationship between China and Russia and triggering the topic of a China-Russia alliance once again.
Since March, Xi Jinping has traveled overseas three times. His first visit after taking office was to Russia. On the same trip, he took in three African countries and attended the BRICS Summit in South Africa. In June, Xi visited three Latin American countries and held a summit with U.S. President Barack Obama in California. For this forthcoming G20 and SCO trip, Xi will again meet with Putin in St. Petersburg and Bishkek. This third trip will also be Xi’s second visit to Russia in six months, itself rare enough in the neighborhood diplomacy of top Chinese leaders in recent years and not especially common for leaders of other countries either.
Russia is a diplomatic priority for Beijing. Some Chinese scholars see close links between China and Russia as a counterweight to the U.S.-Japan alliance, offsetting the pressure of the United States and Japan on the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands issue. For Russia, ties with China can also balance U.S. policy.
Beijing and Moscow have been developing relations over more than 20 years. The two countries have long engaged politically; military cooperation is a more useful indicator of the degree of intimacy. The military alliance between the United States, Japan and South Korea provides insight. Although Japan and South Korea argue over historical and territorial issues, under the larger framework of the alliance, they maintain a careful division of labor, work closely, and stay in step on military issues.
It is worth noting that coinciding with Xi's first visit to Russia, Beijing and Moscow signed the largest weapons procurement contract in the past decade, in which China is to buy 24 Su-35 fighters and four Lada-class submarines (although some reports have denied this deal actually going through). Since then, China and Russia have held a "routine" military exercise, again showing the growing sophistication of military cooperation between the two countries.
In addition to bilateral relations, cooperation between China and Russia has a broader role in the international arena. Xi will be attending the SCO Summit in Bishkek, his first involvement in the organization as president. China has had a central role in the SCO since the forming of the Shanghai Five mechanism. The organization is based in Shanghai, meaning that it is widely seen as representing China’s sphere of influence. In addition to China, other formal members of the SCO include Russia and certain other Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) countries, making the organization the most effective platform for cooperation between China and the CIS.
Central Asia also forms the innermost ring of Russian foreign policy, and for Moscow, China is an important international partner and external supporter. The cooperation of two major political entities—China and the CIS—through SCO will very likely become the fulcrum for a "quasi-alliance” between Beijing and Moscow. That is the key to understanding Xi’s presence at the SCO Summit and China’s stepped-up exchanges with Russia.
The rest of the world will have taken note that Xi’s meeting with Putin coincides with the deepening crisis in Syria. Before the West resorts to force against the Assad regime, Xi is likely to coordinate his position with Putin and the Central Asian countries to safeguard Chinese interests.