In the race to woo Russian President Vladimir Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) is beating US President Donald Trump.
Trump’s quest to kindle a bromance with the Russian president has made some Americans squirm. His gushy performance in Helsinki, expressing confidence in Putin instead of US intelligence agencies, ignited outrage across the political spectrum back home.
Should Beijing worry that Trump could succeed in pulling Putin away from China?
Probably not, political analysts said.
Trump’s charm offensive might cause Beijing a twinge of unease, given its tumultuous history with Moscow, but in this love triangle, Putin and Xi are linked by strategic necessity, as well as genuine personal affection.
“Trump has made clear that he is a big fan of Putin,” Shanghai Institute for International Studies Center for Russia and Central Asia Studies director Li Xin (李新) said. “But everyone knows that Trump frequently changes his mind.”
“His attempts to be friendly cannot compete with the history and the intimacy of Xi’s and Putin’s relationship,” Li said.
Moscow and Beijing are linked by practical and political needs. China wants Russian oil and gas to power the world’s second-largest economy. Moscow needs Chinese trade and investment more than ever following its estrangement from the West over its 2014 annexation of Crimea.
They share a loathing of Islamic radicalism in Central Asia and resent the US’s global dominance.
“Both leaders seek to curtail American influence, weaken US alliances and modify the international system so it is more favorable to them,” Center for Strategic and International Studies senior adviser and China Power Project director Bonnie Glaser said in an email.
Trump raves about Putin’s political skills, but the Chinese and Russian leaders have long enthused publicly about their unique rapport. Ahead of a visit to Beijing last month, Putin reminisced about celebrating his birthday with Xi over vodka and sausages five years ago.
“I’ve never established such relations or made such arrangements with any foreign colleague, but I did it with President Xi,” Putin told Chinese state TV.
Xi presented Putin with China’s first “friendship medal” — an ornate gold necklace — and called him “my best, most intimate friend.”
The Russian and Chinese presidents have spent more time with one another than either has with any other foreign leader.
As far as it is possible for global leaders to become real friends, they are “setting a pretty high bar,” Carnegie Moscow Center senior fellow and the chair of the Russia in the Asia-Pacific Program Alexander Gabuev said. “China has nothing to worry about.”
Following the Helsinki summit, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs welcomed improved US-Russian relations.
Beijing is “full of confidence” about its own ties with Moscow, Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs Information Department Deputy Director Hua Chunying (華春瑩) said. “China-Russia relations will not be affected by any external factors.”
Yet there is the remote possibility that Washington and Moscow might one day feel the need to unite against China if its rising influence tramples their interests, commentator Harry Kazianis said.
“While we might rightly see Moscow as a rogue nation today, tomorrow it could be a partner in containing a common foe,” Kazianis wrote in American Conservative this month.
However, that is unlikely any time soon, experts said.
Trump backtracked on one of his comments after the outcry back home over his apparent dismissal of US intelligence reports that Moscow meddled in the 2016 election.
Rather than view Trump as a rival for Russia’s friendship, China is more likely to be pleased by the growing split between Trump and the US’ allies in Europe.
“Beijing has better ties with both Washington and Moscow than they have with each other,” Glaser said. “China likely expects that Trump’s visit will not change this reality.”
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