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Putin’s China Visit: As Moscow Eyes Mars, Beijing Wants Beans 

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Putin’s China Visit: As Moscow Eyes Mars, Beijing Wants Beans 

Russia and China both see advantages in deepening their partnership but mismatches in their priorities persist. 

Putin’s China Visit: As Moscow Eyes Mars, Beijing Wants Beans 

China’s President Xi Jinping (left) escorts Russian President Vladimir Putin during an official welcome ceremony in Beijing, China, May 16, 2024.

Credit: Russian Presidential Press and Information Office

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to China on May 16-17 shone a spotlight on foreign policy convergences between Moscow and Beijing. In their joint statement, the two leaders vowed to strengthen military cooperation and economic ties while decrying the United States’ activities in the Asia-Pacific. The two leaders also found common ground on issues connected to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, condemning attempts to seize foreign assets and promising to provide uninterrupted payment channels between economic entities.

The joint statement only dedicated a short section to the war in Ukraine, which the document describes as the “Ukrainian Crisis.” Despite Western criticisms of China for supporting Russia’s war effort through the export of dual-use technology, the document noted the need “to stop any steps that contribute to the prolongation of hostilities.” In a few sentences broadly amplified by Russian media, it also stated that Russia values “China’s objective and unbiased position,” and the two sides agreed on the desirability of a political and diplomatic settlement. 

Still, Presidential Assistant for Foreign Policy Yuri Ushakov remarked that Beijing “understands the true reasons” for the war and insisted that discussions on the subject are useless without Russia. It is also significant that the meeting between Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing was attended by Russia’s former Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and current Defense Minister Andrey Belousov, both of whom are key figures in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.   

In its coverage of Putin’s visit, Russian media has focused on the strong ties between the two powers. China was the first country Putin visited following his re-election this year. Furthermore, the two countries are celebrating 75 years of foreign relations, with Xi’s effusive praise quoted by Russian media. Invoking his favored foreign policy slogans, Xi referred to China and Russia as an example of “a new type of international relations and relations between large neighbors.” Putin, in turn, said that Russia does not have as wide a network of direct contacts and interregional agreements with any other country in the world. 

It is no coincidence that the president’s journey took him to Harbin, a formerly Russian-majority metropolis that was once the hub of the Russian-built Chinese Eastern Railway. Harbin remained an important symbol in post-imperial relations thanks to its liberation by Soviet troops from Japanese rule in 1945. Putin paid his respects to both the imperial and Soviet legacies of the city, presenting an icon to the last operational Orthodox church and laying flowers at a memorial to Soviet soldiers.  

While in Harbin, Putin also launched the eighth Russian-Chinese EXPO and the fourth Russian-Chinese Forum on Interregional Cooperation. He signaled Russia’s highest priorities at the former by visiting the stands of Rosatom, the China National Offshore Oil Corporation, and the Russian Direct Investment Fund. The entire EXPO, the Russian presidential pages said, focused on “projects in machine engineering, [and] metals, as well as solutions for the energy and IT sectors, manufacturing financing, logistics and other domains.”

Given Russia’s high-tech aspirations, it is hardly surprising that Putin’s imagination was captured by the prospect of cooperating with China on space exploration. According to the state-run newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta, Putin said he liked the idea of Russia and China jointly unfurling their flags on Mars when he was shown a rover with automatic flag deployment technology. The exchange served as a rebuke to the European Space Agency, which pulled out of a joint European-Russian Mars mission in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and partnered up with NASA instead.  

Mars is not the only focus of Russia’s and China’s potential space cooperation. Earlier this year, the head of Russia’s space agency Roscosmos, Yuri Borisov, shared details about the planned China-Russia lunar station, saying that Russia was going to put a nuclear power plant on the Moon. As Reuters points out, the Russian space program has faced setbacks in recent years, despite ambitions to mine the Earth’s satellite. Its first lunar mission in almost half a century ended in failure when the Luna-25 spacecraft crashed into the moon. 

Putin also exuded surprising confidence in the face of China’s ascendancy as an automobile powerhouse. The sole reason why tariffs are being introduced on EVs in the West, Putin stated, is that the quality of Chinese EVs has improved. He said Russia welcomes the expansion of the Chinese automobile industry and expressed hope in their further cooperation. 

This news comes on the heels of increasingly desperate complaints by Russian automakers, with the head of state-owned company AvtoVAZ charging that Chinese brands are financially undercutting Russian producers and have no interest in localizing their production in Russia. According to the chairman of the Russian-Chinese Committee for Friendship, Peace, and Development, Russian authorities have brought up the issue of localization with their Chinese partners. It is unclear whether this request met with any kind of response.

Meanwhile, Chinese coverage of Putin’s visit made it clear that Beijing’s expectations of cooperation with Moscow mostly revolve around the primary sector. Writing of relations between the two countries, CCTV reduced Russia-China trade to “Russian gas in Chinese households, and Chinese electronics and cars on Russian roads.” Indeed, one of the major news pieces in the Global Times during the time of Putin’s visit was the announcement of Russia’s first marine terminal in the Far East for the shipment of liquefied petroleum gas.

According to one Chinese expert interviewed by the Global Times, significant breakthroughs are expected not just in energy and manufacturing but also in agriculture. According to the outlet, discussions have been held between agricultural experts from the two countries on the feasibility of Russia’s becoming a major soybean supplier to China. Currently, China’s soybean imports are dominated by Brazil (70 percent) and the United States (24 percent), but Russia’s climate makes it an ideal candidate for growing the crop. It is hoped that Russian agricultural exports may reduce Chinese reliance on food products from the United States, given ever-worsening political tensions.   

There are, of course, other ways in which Russian and Chinese interests converge. Cooperation in easing financial transactions may deliver a major win to Beijing, as Chinese experts expect Moscow to provide more support for the internationalization of the renminbi. Russian hopes to jointly develop its Far East have also received the attention of Chinese media, with vast amounts of natural resources waiting for exploitation. 

As Russia’s war against Ukraine continues its isolation in the West, its dependency on China will only deepen. From the Kremlin’s point of view, the benefits of this relationship are clear. It is increasingly evident, however, that Russia will not get everything it wants and will have to make difficult sacrifices in the process.