China's powerful new vice-president Wang Qishan will visit Russia and Belarus starting this week, China's foreign ministry said on Monday (May 21), his first overseas trip since being appointed in March.
China and Russia have had a somewhat tumultuous past. From former allies to bitter rivals throughout the 1960s and 1970s despite both being led by communist governments and finally back to being allies again in the 1990s. Both nations, despite not having a great deal in common culturally, find themselves politically in agreement on a large number of key issues on the global stage, often offering a viewpoint that is opposed to those offered by their American or European contemporaries.
While there is a great deal of political goodwill between the two nations, that has not yet translated into strong economic ties, with Russia only accounting for around 1.8% of China’s global exports and Russian goods, primarily energy, making up only 2% of China’s imports from Russia. However, with Russia’s participation in the One Belt, One Road mega-project that is being spearheaded by China, there is a chance that the warm political relations between the two may soon be backed up by a vastly increased amount of bi-lateral trade.
China and Russia are already coordinating on many aspects of foreign policy, such as supporting the Asad regime in Syria, criticizing the handling of the Korean Peninsula crisis by the United States and, most recently, the US decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. As both are permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, combined they have a great deal of power when it comes to organizing or preventing any action by the international community.
China’s former anti-graft tsar is generally considered the second most powerful man in China. He has been the Secretary of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection. The CCDI is the highest internal-control institution of the Communist Party of China (CPC). Even though Wang Qishan was set to retire, he was voted in as China’s Vice President. Experts stated that Chinese leader Xi Jinping wanted to keep his key ally in a powerful position and also add heft to Chinese diplomacy. He began his term in March 2018.
In May 2018, after Qishan attended the inaugural meeting of a key Communist Party body on foreign affairs, it became clear that he will play a central diplomatic role for the nation. This was further confirmed when it was announced that his first overseas visit as the new Vice President would be a state visit to Russia. The visit is slated to take place between May 24th and May 29th. He will also be visiting Belarus.
The visit comes during a period where China’s ties to the US have considerably cooled off. Even though the nation has agreed to call a truce on the trade conflict with Washington, there are still concerns that this truce will be short lived. Meanwhile, Russia’s ties with the US have suffered significantly in the last few years especially since the US 2016 Presidential elections.
Pang Zhongying, a Beijing-based international affairs expert noted, “It will not only showcase Wang’s unique, important role in China’s foreign policy in Xi’s era, but also highlight the importance of Sino-Russian relations in Xi’s overall global diplomacy in the midst of growing uncertainties and rivalry with Washington,” Pang said. He also spoke about the tenuous nature of the US-Sino ties stating, “But the structural problems with the US and Trump’s repeated threats of an all-out trade war remain unsolved, and the prospects for US-China relations look rather grim.”
Another reason that could be bringing China closer to Russia is the erratic foreign policy rolled out by President Trump. China and Russia are presently against the US withdrawing from the Iran agreement.
Li Xing, a Russia expert at Beijing Normal University said, “Wang, a party veteran with global vision and diplomatic skills, will use the trip to try to align with Putin on important issues such as North Korea, the Iran nuclear deal as well as their relations with the US. But China must be aware that getting too close to Russia may stoke concerns in the West and alienate many Western countries. At the end of the day, a declining Russia is not the ultimate solution for China to counterbalance the US and its allies.”
Our assessment is that Qishan’s visit seeks to further strengthen ties between China and Russia. It will also improve cooperation when it comes to the One Belt One Road project. The increased cooperation between China and Russia points to a new world order.