With Russia-West relations at a low point, Vladimir Putin’s visit to China is attracting a great deal of attention from Russian and foreign pundits.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, before meeting with China's President Xi Jinping in Shanghai. Photo: RIA Novosti / Sergey Guneev

On May 20, Russian President Vladimir Putin arrived in Shanghai for a state visit in an attempt to deepen ties between China and Russia. The two nations, which could end up signing as many as 30 different documents over a two-day period, are going to focus on high-priority fields of collaboration, including deeper economic ties and cooperation in the scientific and high tech sector.

“Now Russia-China cooperation is advancing to a new stage of comprehensive partnership and strategic interaction,” Putin said in an interview with the Chinese media released by the Kremlin on May 19. “It would not be wrong to say that it has reached the highest level in all its centuries-long history.”

Although China and Russia failed to sign a $400 billion gas supply agreement on May 20, there is still a chance that the two sides could agree on a deal before Putin leaves China or, more likely, in time for an economic forum in the Russian city of St. Petersburg later this week.

Amidst the Ukrainian crisis and the well-documented decline in Russia-West relations, this visit might have significant implications for the creation of a new world order. With Putin’s visit to China drawing the attention of both Russian and Western media, Russia Direct talked to a number of experts to find out about the long-term political and economic implications of closer Russia-China cooperation.

Alexander Panov, Ambassador Extraordinary, senior research fellow at the Institute of the U.S. and Canada, professor at Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO-University)

[Putin’s] visit had been planned before the events in Ukraine and his major goal is to confirm strategic partnership in different international fields as well as agree on stepping up economic collaboration. The events in Ukraine and serious deterioration in Russia-West relations make this visit more significant globally.

Both sides present an alternative to U.S. aspirations to maintain its dominant position in world politics and economics. Probably, upcoming agreements will be a starting point for an accelerated reshaping of the entire system of international relations. It may include closer bilateral collaboration, but not about the creation of a military-political bloc, which neither Beijing nor Moscow is interested in.

Traditionally, China’s political culture doesn’t include the goal of joining a union with any countries, except North Korea. Agreements with this country resulted from China’s involvement in the Korean War, and currently, China supports the North Korean military under certain conditions.              

Likewise, Russia’s foreign policy strategy doesn’t seek to create military-political unions with other countries, except a union with Belarus.

At the same time, the very fact that Moscow and Beijing are coming together amidst the current events in Ukraine is obviously seen in the world as a response to the Western policy of attempting to contain both Russia and China.    

Russia needs to join the Asia-Pacific Region’s economic processes not only by making far-reaching statements, but also by practical actions. Without support of China, Japan and South Korea – the leading economies in the region – it will be highly difficult to implement these plans. So far, Russia’s Far East remains closed or less attractive for foreign business. One of the goals of the Russian president’s visit to China is to start building a model of involvement of China’s business in the economic development of Russia’s Far East.  

Richard Weitz, senior fellow and director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at the Hudson Institute. He is also a non-resident Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS)

Russia’s overarching goals in Asia generally include promoting multipolarity (limiting the influence of the United States but also includes managing China’s rise), developing beneficial economic relations, having a visible presence in all major Asian events and institutions (in accordance with the vision of Russia as a great power), and minimizing the adverse impact of regional disputes while seeking to exploit some of them to enhance Russia’s influence and interests.

The strategy of developing the Russian Far East by increasing its economic integration within East Asia has both defensive and offensive purposes. Moscow hopes to counter Chinese economic absorption of Siberia as a raw material appendage while simultaneously building a more solid foundation for promoting Russia’s regional influence.

Russia’s most important Asian relationship is clearly with China. The two countries share interests in maintaining stability in the Korean peninsula, Central Asia, and the Middle East—all regions where their local allies are threatened by various forces. China has clearly emerged as Russia’s most important trading partner and gateway to other Asian markets, and soon could become its main source of foreign investment.

Most importantly, Chinese officials make a show of treating their Russian counterparts as representatives of an equal great power, a status they deny India and Japan. When Xi visited Sochi, he played up his knowledge and respect for Russian culture and sought out time face-to-face with Putin.

Thanks to the convergence of their models of government and their national ideologies, Russian and Chinese leaders increasingly share a common conceptual framework that is distrustful of popular democracy and of unconstrained free market economics and that shuns criticisms over other countries’ human rights practices. Their joint statements and actions reinforce each other’s legitimacy.

Nevertheless, the Russia-China relationship remains strategically limited in important respects. Their energy partnership continues its halting progress, with one step back for every two steps forward. Although China has now become Russia’s main trading partner, their bilateral exchange of goods, less than $100 billion in 2013, is much lower than that between China and its major Western partners.

Russia-China military exercises are intermittent and not well integrated. In the UN and elsewhere, their diplomats more readily agree on what Western proposals they oppose than on how to advance a more proactive positive agenda. Nonetheless, the Russia-China relationship could evolve to have a greater global impact, to the possible detriment of the United States and its allies. For example, Moscow has benefited from Beijing's de facto acceptance of its activities in Ukraine, which Washington opposes.

Nikolay Murashkin, Doctoral candidate, Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, St. Catharine's College, University of Cambridge; former analyst at a London-based bank responsible for commodity transactions in Central Asia and Eastern Europe.

With external tensions mounting for both countries, they seek mutual reassurance. While the bilateral gas deal has been on the negotiation table for two decades, it’s not only the chance to finally seal it, but also the opportunity for closer Russian-Chinese economic cooperation within a new geopolitical context.

After gas talks were stalled over price and equity participation, the Kremlin’s bargaining power was recently reduced by the isolation measures adopted by the West in the aftermath of the Crimean crisis. In this situation, it is in Moscow’s interest to minimize possible concessions to Beijing by using the offer of a larger cooperation package as momentum driver.

Although Chinese leaders are aware of their current upper hand in the gas deal, they also need Russia’s support in securing the new Silk Road Economic Belt project, where Moscow has a say as a Eurasian power and a regional transit player.

In particular, the success of the Chinese Silk Road initiative depends on the planned International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014, which, in its turn, is bound to raise the profiles of both Moscow and Beijing, which are stakeholders in Afghanistan.

Securing friendship in the North is also important for Chinese diplomacy for two reasons. Beijing is, on the one hand, pressured in disputes with East Asian neighbors that are supported by Washington, and, on the other hand, facing a test in relations with the new Indian leadership.

Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping in Shanghai. Photo: RG

Whilst reinforcing Europe’s diversification policy to further reduce its energy reliance on Moscow, Russian gas supplies can make a huge difference in Northeast Asia. Procurement from Russia is likely to reduce the so-called Asian gas premium and lower the market price for Asian economies, thus helping their growth and even promoting Northeast Asian regionalism, which has been long stunted by rivalries between local powers.

At the same time, it is crucial for Moscow to avoid putting too many eggs into China’s basket and to maintain a diversified gas customer base within Asia. That involves improving its commercial presence in Japan, whose demand for gas has been steadily increasing, as well as building one on the Korean peninsula.

The same diversification logic applies for Russia’s Asia-Pacific drive beyond gas: Multilateralism is key, and rapprochement with China should not come at the cost of Russian ties with East Asian partners, be it Japan, Vietnam or other countries currently in a row with Beijing.

Alexey Fenenko, leading Research Fellow at the Institute of International Security Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS)

The state visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin to China is of substantial significance given the current bitter crisis in Russia’s relations with the West. Washington has consistently failed to build a diplomatic dialogue with Moscow during the last couple of years and the situation has become considerably worse over Ukraine, approaching an open political and military conflict.

China, in turn, sees that Barack Obama is pursuing a containment policy against China by improving ties with Vietnam and expanding U.S. influence in the Asia Pacific region.

During the visit, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping are expected to sign a deal to export Russian natural gas to China that will give Russia more freedom in its economic relations with the European Union by diversifying its export routes and enable China to meet its growing demand for energy. Creating an additional export path to the East will show the West that if anything happens, Russia can survive without them.

In regard to the question of Russian integration into the Asia Pacific region, it is important to say that here is a clear challenge. Since the 2001 Sino-Russian Treaty of Friendship, the countries of Asia Pacific see Russia as the ally of China. Hence, they do not show any interest in giving up their relations with America and building stronger political and economic ties with Russia. The only country that Russia can develop relations with is Vietnam, which is not in China’s interests. Russia has to choose between being friends with China and competing with the U.S. in developing strong relations with the states of Asia Pacific.