Chinese President Xi Jingping was the principal guest at the Eastern Economic Forum (EEF) in Vladivostok. EEF is an annual, Davos-like, high-profile event, spearheaded by President Putin, intended to showcase economic opportunities in Russia’s Far East and to invite domestic and foreign investment to it. This year, the Presidents of China and Mongolia and the Prime Ministers of Japan and Korea joined President Putin for the event. Though Japanese PM Shinzo Abe, who has become a regular attendee of EEF, got considerable prominence, President Xi predictably occupied centre stage. The Chinese delegation to the forum was about 1000-strong.
At the Xi-Putin press availability after their bilateral meeting, the two leaders paraded the breadth of the strategic partnership. Significantly, while President Putin elaborated on the economic elements, President Xi focussed on the political content.
Bilateral trade turnover was $87 billion in 2017 and is expected to cross $100 billion this year. Thanks to Russian energy exports, the trade balance is in Russia’s favour. Russia’s oil exports to China are growing rapidly: over 50m tonnes in 2017. The “Power of Siberia” gas pipeline from Russia to China, due to be completed in 2019, will significantly expand natural gas supplies to China, which also has a sizeable investment in an Arctic LNG project. Russia is building six nuclear power plants in China.
President Xi said Russia and China bear joint responsibility for maintaining global peace and security and their cooperation is ever more important in the backdrop of growing global instability and unpredictability. He emphasized cooperation for political settlement of “urgent matters and hot spots” and against “unilateral approach and trade protectionism”. Through 2014 and 2015, as Russia faced Western ostracism, China always managed to convey the impression (sometimes quite unsubtly) of being the senior partner. Now at the receiving end of harsh US rhetoric itself, Chinese phraseology reflects more equality in the partnership.
Much more than this impressive display of close partnership, international attention was focussed on the massive joint military exercise, Vostok-2018, involving mainly Russian and Chinese troops and equipment (though Mongolia also participated), which ran concurrently with EEF and was the biggest hosted by Russia since 1981 (when there was a strong Cold War context). It involved about 300,000 Russian troops, 900 tanks, and 1,000 aircraft. The Chinese participation of 3,200 troops, with over 900 pieces of weaponry and 30 fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters, was the largest-ever Chinese military participation in a military exercise abroad (as per a senior Chinese defence spokesman).
Unlike earlier joint exercises, which were devoted to “defensive” security like counter-terrorism and anti-insurgency, Vostok was a “war games” exercise, aimed at strengthening joint capacity to address “varied security threats … conducive to safeguarding regional peace and security" (as per the same Chinese defence official). Naval forces were deployed in the Pacific and Arctic Oceans and the Sea of Okhotsk. The main land deployments were in the Trans-Baikal region, north of the Chinese border.
Developing a capacity to inter-operably mobilize large troop contingents for deployment over large distances speaks of an ambition beyond a strategic partnership. In fact, President Putin’s spokesman Peskov commented that China’s participation in Vostok 2018 demonstrates “expansion of interaction of the two allies in all spheres."
Just before the Vostok exercises, the Chinese defence spokesperson also confirmed that Russia had agreed to supply 10 Su-35 multirole fighters to China by end-2018 and that Sino-Russian military technology cooperation is progressing satisfactorily.
September 30, 2018