Putin seeks to deepen trade ties with Beijing in China’s ‘little Moscow’

After meeting with Xi Jinping, the Russian president traveled to a province bordering Russia on the second day of his official visit to China

Putin China
Vladimir Putin and Chinese Vice President Han Zheng tour an exhibition at the 8th Russian-Chinese EXPO in Harbin, China, May 17.Mikhail Metzel (via REUTERS)
Guillermo Abril

After a Thursday spent in Beijing reaffirming the harmony between Russia and China, certified with the signing of a joint declaration to the effect that relations between the two countries have reached their “highest-ever level,” and after announcing collaboration in all manner of fields — from artificial intelligence to lunar exploration and military dominance — while also accusing the United States of still thinking “in Cold War terms” and of taking a “destructive and hostile” course aimed at the containment of both Moscow and Beijing, Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday used the second day of his official visit to the Asian giant to travel to Heilongjiang, a border province located in northeast China whose historical roots with neighboring Russia run deep.

This second event of the Russian leader’s trip — framed within the 75th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Beijing and Moscow — took on a cultural and economic aspect. Putin traveled to the capital of the region, Harbin, without his counterpart, Xi Jinping, with whom he spent much of Thursday in formal meetings with the two leaders’ delegations, as well as sharing a walk and tea alone by a lake, taking in a concert, and attending an informal dinner with their closest confidants.

Once known as “little Moscow,” Harbin has had close ties with Russia since the late 19th century. It has welcomed numerous expatriates from the neighboring country and maintains a historical link still distinguishable in architectural elements, such as the domes of the Orthodox Cathedral of St. Sophia.

Putin, who was received and accompanied in Harbin by Chinese Vice President Han Zheng, began his visit by laying a wreath at the monument dedicated to Soviet soldiers who fell alongside Chinese troops during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945), when Japan occupied parts of China. The Russian leader’s agenda included the opening of the 8th Russian-Chinese Expo and the 4th Russian-Chinese Interregional Cooperation Forum, as well as a visit to the Church of the Protection of the Blessed Virgin Mary, an Orthodox temple, and Harbin Polytechnic University.

Putin took advantage of the border location, where relations have not always been peaceful between the neighbors, to talk about growing economic ties. He made special mention of gas and oil, the great liquidity lifeline for Russia after over two years of war in Ukraine. “I am confident that our strategic alliance in the energy sector, which has become a reliable support for the entire global energy market, will continue to strengthen,” Putin said at the opening ceremony of the Russian-Chinese Expo and Interregional Cooperation Forum, as reported by the Russian agency Tass.

Analysts expected that the Russian leader would try to advance a possible agreement during his visit on the Power of Siberia-2 gas pipeline, which has been under negotiation for years and would pump gas to China through Mongolia. In negotiations with Xi on the subject, Putin added, prospects for “such multifaceted cooperation” were discussed, as reported by Tass.

Putin also praised trade figures between Moscow and Beijing, which exceeded $240 billion in 2023, up 26.4% from the previous year. “This is far from the limit, of course,” Putin said.

Russia’s disengagement from much of the world since the 2022 invasion of Ukraine has at the same time meant a strengthening of ties with China that the West is wary of. “More effort is needed to curtail delivery of dual use goods to Russia that find their way to the battlefield,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said last week at the end of a trilateral meeting with the Chinese leader and French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris.

The declaration sealed Thursday between Putin and Xi can be expected to add to the mounting mistrust in Brussels and, particularly, Washington. The lengthy text, which stretches to over 12,000 characters in its Chinese version, is particularly critical of the U.S., which the two leaders accused of trying to “undermine strategic stability in order to maintain its absolute military superiority.”

The pact condemns what it considers a U.S. missile deployment that threatens Russia and China and the widespread use of the U.S. nuclear umbrella among its allies in the region such as Australia; it also condemns Aukus — the security agreement between the U.S., Australia, and the United Kingdom — and what it considers Washington’s growing military presence in the Asia-Pacific region. Moscow and Beijing “will strengthen coordination and cooperation to confront the hostile and destructive course of the so-called dual containment policy of the United States towards China and Russia,” the communiqué states.

“Both sides oppose the creation of a closed and exclusive bloc structure in the Asia-Pacific, especially a military alliance against third parties,” the statement adds. “NATO’s destructive moves in the region,” it concludes, “have had a negative impact on peace and stability.”

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