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Xi's Russia trip: China's pivot away from US?
Publication Date : 21-03-2013
Is it just a simple greeting of "zdra-stvu-eetee (hello), Moscow" or really a veiled warning of "watch out, Washington"?
Tomorrow, Xi Jinping will begin his first overseas trip as China's President, visiting first Russia and then Africa.
For some, his choice of destination is not striking given that his predecessor, Hu Jintao, also made his first overseas trip to Russia in May 2003, after succeeding Jiang Zemin.
But others see deeper meaning in it, given the tension between China and the United States over the latter's efforts to heighten its influence in the Asia-Pacific.
His pick of Russia as his first stop has thus sparked talk that Beijing is seeking to launch its own "pivot to Moscow", against the US' pivot to the Asia-Pacific.
Wrote Russian political scientist Sergei Karaganov: "China views Russia as its strategic rear - and perhaps a base - in its escalating rivalry with the US (though not yet as an ally)".
Singapore-based analyst Li Mingjiang said Xi's trip to Russia shows that China wants to maintain and enhance its strategic ties with Russia and that it "regards Moscow as a very useful partner in global power politics".
However, others warn against over-reading Xi's visit to Moscow as a primarily anti-US move.
First, it is a logical decision for Xi to make Russia his first stop, given that he visited the US recently. In February last year, as vice-president and the presumptive successor to Hu, he made a high-profile trip to several US cities, including the capital.
At the national legislature's annual session last week, Xi, 60, became the new President.
Said Peking University analyst Wang Dong: "I won't read too much into it or interpret it as crude as a balance-of-power game since there is simply much diplomatic common sense here."
Agreeing, retired American diplomat Don Keyser pointed out that China will be hosting a string of top US officials in the coming weeks, starting with Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew, on a two-day trip from Tuesday. Soon to follow is Secretary of State John Kerry, likely next month. "There is little reason to anticipate major departures from established policies, relationships and rhetoric," said Keyser.
Also, analysts say, the pursuit of strong ties with Moscow is part of China's desire to form new types of relationships with major powers. Said Professor Wang: "I see this as consistent with the new leadership's efforts to pursue a balanced and prudent foreign policy."
It is especially so when they are each other's biggest neighbours and potential for deeper cooperation exists. Both are part of the Brics bloc and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.
After Moscow, Xi will visit Tanzania and Congo, and attend the Fifth Brics Leaders Meeting in South Africa.
Trade and cooperation have grown between Beijing and Moscow of late. They have also acted in tandem on global issues, such as Syria's civil war and North Korea's missile tests.
At a press conference on Sunday, Premier Li Keqiang said Beijing hopes to see its current US$88 billion trade with Russia multiply several times. By comparison, Sino-US trade is about six times larger at US$500 billion.
It may not be easy though.
Despite the warming ties, suspicions linger between China and Russia, former Communist allies which split and even engaged in a brief border conflict in the late 1960s.
For instance, recent news reports indicate that talks over a massive natural gas pipeline from Russia to China have encountered difficulties due to pricing disagreements.
Still, Vice-Foreign Minister Cheng Guoping said at a press briefing yesterday that China is hopeful of striking the gas deal during Xi's trip.
"We will have some outcomes related to energy, investment and major projects of strategic importance. We expect some breakthrough on these pragmatic cooperation fields," he added.