China's Xi declares Putin his 'best, most intimate friend' as Russia looks to the East for allies

India, Pakistan, Iran and others will join Russia and China for a 'historic' meeting of Asian allies this weekend, rivalling the G7 in Canada

Adam Withnall
Asia Editor
Friday 08 June 2018 16:29 BST
Chinese President Xi Jinping presents Russian President Vladimir Putin with the Medal of Friendship in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing
Chinese President Xi Jinping presents Russian President Vladimir Putin with the Medal of Friendship in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing (Getty Images)

China’s Xi Jinping handed Vladimir Putin a large, golden “Medal of Friendship” on Friday as the two met in Beijing, declaring the Russian leader his “best, most intimate friend”.

The elaborate ceremony, broadcast live on state TV, served as a prelude to the weekend’s annual summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), an eight-country grouping founded by China and Russia to further their shared interests.

As a symbolic display of strengthening diplomatic ties, it was hardly subtle. But at a time when Russia is becoming ever more isolated from its Western neighbours, and as the G7 holds its own summit in Canada, it serves to show the world that Moscow always has a plan B.

For the first time this year, India - as well as its neighbour Pakistan - will be joining as full members of the SCO when it convenes in the port city of Qingdao on Saturday.

It means that while this summit has been overshadowed by the build-up to Donald Trump’s historic meeting with Kim Jong-un in Singapore on Tuesday, the SCO has become a growing force in multilateral geopolitics that cannot be ignored.

Mr Xi said Sino-Russian relations had been a “priority” for both sides “no matter what fluctuations there are in the international situation”. He put the medal on Mr Putin, calling him a "good and old friend of the Chinese people” and “the leader of a great country who is influential around the world”.

Thanking him, Mr Putin said their one-on-one meeting ahead of the summit showed the “special attention and respect on which our mutual national interests are based, the interests of our peoples, and, of course, our personal friendship”.

A joint statement signed by the pair made further references to “growing global instability” and explicitly criticised President Trump pulling the US out of the Iran nuclear deal, saying they would fight to keep it alive. Iran’s president Hassan Rouhani is attending the SCO summit as an observer this year, his first foreign visit since Mr Trump’s decision.

Joseph Liow Chin Yong, a professor of international politics at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, told The Independent the theme of the “uptick in China and Russia’s bilateral relationship” would extend into the SCO gathering itself.

On a day when Mr Trump was tweeting that he would use the G7 to fight against “the long time unfair trade practiced against the United States [sic]”, China and Russia will likely “also emphasise the importance of a globalised free trade regime, as a swipe to you-know-who”, said Dr Liow.

Russia had fought for the involvement of India in the SCO grouping and prime minister Narendra Modi will meet with China’s Mr Xi on the sidelines of the summit on Saturday.

Mr Modi and Mr Xi, sharing an authoritarian style of leadership, have bonded well in previous meetings between the two, said Dr Jagannath Panda of India’s Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. The same cannot be said for Mr Modi and Mr Trump, though the US remains a close ally.

China and India have clashed over the former’s ambitious “Belt and Road” initiative to extend Chinese economic influence around the world, and as recently as last year staged a 10-week military stand-off on the border.

China’s acceptance of India at this weekend’s summit makes it “one of the landmark summits in the history of the SCO”, Dr Panda told The Independent.

With a Central Asian bloc of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan make up the remaining members of the SCO, Dr Panda explains, China will “for the first time have a united platform to talk about connectivity throughout Central and South Asia”.

For India, the real prize of the summit will be a shared commitment from all parties to crack down on Islamist militant groups operating out of its neighbour Pakistan. At the same time, Dr Panda said, the hosts will not want to “pitch India and Pakistan against each other” if they are to achieve any kind of consensus.

Artyom Lukin, an international politics expert at Far Eastern Federal University in Vladivostok, said it was also worth noting that Russia is itself wary of allowing China too much success with the “Belt and Road”, a network of infrastructure projects sponsored by Beijing that encompasses the continents of Asia, Africa and Europe.

“For Moscow, the SCO ... should also serve as one of the major bulwarks against, and an alternative to, the US-led Western hegemony,” Mr Lukin told the South China Morning Post.

“At the same time, an expanded SCO should act as a multilateral hedge balancing possible Chinese attempts to dominate continental Eurasia, even though this particular purpose is kept implicit and tacit.”

Observers say the summit as a whole will be full of pomp, ceremony and show, but whether it can deliver anything concrete remains to be seen. Russia and China at least made a promising start on Friday, signing several agreements including a joint $1bn industrial investment fund.

For Mr Putin, the SCO appears to be about keeping his friends close - and he has so far kept Mr Xi closest of all.

“They are similar type of leaders and share much in common in how they see politics and relations with the outside world,” Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at SOAS, told The Independent.

“Russia and China will not trust each other fully, as the enormous Russian Far East was previously part of the Qing Empire. The Chinese have never forgotten this history and the Russians know that. But until China is prepared and willing to act on this, they share a strategic interest in being parallel strategic competitors to the US.”

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