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Xi in Russia

MOSCOW – The atmospherics surrounding Xi Jinping’s coming trip to Russia – his first visit to a foreign country as China’s new president – remind me of a slogan from my early childhood in the late 1950’s: “Russia-China, Friendship Forever.” The irony is that, even in that slogan’s heyday, Sino-Russian relations were deteriorating fast, culminating in spasms of combat along the Amur River in Siberia less than a decade later. Is that slogan more valid now?

After China opened up its economy and Russia emerged from the Soviet Union, bilateral relations entered a new stage. Goodwill now prevails, but some of the old suspicions linger – and some new ones have emerged.

Xi’s visit is not expected to usher in any breakthroughs. A few deals to export Russian hydrocarbons to China can be expected, but not much more. Nonetheless, the visit will highlight several important features of the bilateral relationship.

For starters, both the Russian and Chinese governments can afford to downplay the significance of their ties with the United States. China views Russia as its strategic rear – and perhaps a base – in its escalating rivalry with the US (though not yet as an ally). Russia’s leaders view Sino-American competition as a welcome addition to their country’s strategic weight, which, unlike China’s, is not being augmented by robust economic growth. The more the US challenges the inevitable expansion of China’s “security perimeter,” the better for Russia, or so the Kremlin’s strategists appear to believe.