President Xi Jinping will seek to advance his bid to revive an ancient trade route linking China to Europe during a three-country swing that takes in Kazakhstan and Russia, where he’ll help Vladimir Putin mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II.
Xi arrives Thursday in Kazakhstan, where less than two years ago he unveiled his Silk Road foreign policy initiative. He’ll discuss more projects to line the envisaged trade route that includes a high-speed train line from China to Moscow. In Belarus, an industrial park that may become a key project along the road will also be the highlight.
Xi’s strategy of expanding Chinese interests through the former Soviet states of central Asia could potentially clash with President Putin’s plans for a Eurasian Economic Union, and undermine a recent renaissance in Sino-Russian relations, according to Bobo Lo, author of “Russia and the New World Disorder” to be published in June.
“The Silk Road, though its an infrastructure idea, is about the promotion and expansion of Chinese interests, which leaves a clear conflict of interests with Putin’s own Eurasian Economic Union,” Lo, an associate at Chatham House in London, said in a March interview in Hong Kong. “They haven’t directly clashed because they are both nascent ideas, but give it time.”
While in Moscow on Saturday, Xi will survey 112 soldiers from the People’s Liberation Army marching for the first time alongside Russians in the Red Square parade. He’ll be the highest-profile guest after Western leaders including U.S. President Barack Obama and U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron snubbed Putin, who they say supports Ukrainian separatists.
Video of the parade rehearsals released Thursday show the Chinese singing the Russian patriotic song “Katyusha,” echoing a troop of female PLA singers who sang the ballad at Russia’s Defender of the Fatherland Day in February.
“It is highly symbolic in a year when the West is deliberately ignoring paying respect to the Russian military as the successor to the Red Army that defeated the Nazis, that China sends its military to march along side them,” said Alexey Muraviev, a Russia defense specialist at Curtin University in Perth, Australia.
Xi will attempt to draw Putin into his vision for the Silk Road by offering cooperation with the Eurasian Economic Union, China’s Vice Foreign Minister Cheng Guoping said at a May 4 briefing. China has set up a $40 billion infrastructure fund to finance projects along the route.
During his visit, Xi will sign agreements on energy, aviation, finance and tax issues, according to China’s foreign ministry. Among them may be a deal for China to buy Russian SU-35 fighter jets.
Talks on the sale of the jet have been held up because China is wrangling over price, technology transfer and the share of Chinese-made components in the plane, said Vasily Kashin, a China expert at the Center of Analysis of Strategies and Technologies in Moscow.
“There is a political decision to buy the aircraft, but negotiations could continue for some time,” he said.
Russia is in a stronger bargaining position than a decade ago, when China along with India were the key customers for Russian arms, because of a domestic arms build-up and new markets in Algeria, Indonesia, Venezuela and Vietnam, he said.
Russia is keen to expand the economic relationship with China as it faces international sanctions over the Ukraine, falling oil prices and a weaker ruble. Sino-Russian trade has stalled in recent years since surging more than 14 times since 2000. Last year total trade was $95.3 billion, just below a high of $95.6 billion set in 2012.
Xi’s visit to Russia is just one of a series of political and military set pieces planned for the year. In September Putin will be in Beijing to join China’s commemoration of the 70th anniversary of Japan’s defeat.
While Xi is visiting Belarus between May 10 and 12, the Russian and Chinese navies will conduct a joint drills in the Mediterranean. A total of nine ships will take part, with China sending three that just completed an escort mission in the Gulf of Aden and waters off the Somali coast, according to the China’s Ministry of National Defense.
“The timing of the joint announcement in November of the exercises in the Med is pretty decent signaling that China is going to stick with Russia, particularly over western attempts to ostracize it,” said Matthew Sussex, head of politics and international relations at the University of Tasmania. “The military exercises are still symbolic, but they are another ratcheting up of the competition with the West.”