- - Thursday, June 23, 2016

MOSCOW — The Kremlin’s much-vaunted “pivot to China” takes another big step forward Saturday when Russian President Vladimir Putin arrives in Beijing on a state visit that Moscow hopes will strengthen relations between the countries and provide a boost to Russia’s tanking economy.

The visit offers Mr. Putin a welcome break from a string of challenges elsewhere, but whether the Chinese will be such accommodating hosts is another question.

Mr. Putin is in talks with President Xi Jinping in Beijing after the European Union agreed this month to extend energy, financial and defense sanctions against Russia over the Kremlin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. The United States also extended a sanctions program in May. Paired with low global prices for oil, the sanctions have slashed the value of the ruble by half against the dollar since 2014, while inflation and falling wages have plunged millions of people into poverty.

Among a number of deals expected to be signed during Mr. Putin’s visit are a multibillion-dollar loan by Chinese banks to help build a high-speed rail link between Moscow and the Volga River city of Kazan. In April, two Chinese state banks agreed to provide Moscow with more than $12 billion in loans to develop a liquefied natural gas plant in the Russian Arctic. Details of the first part of that loan are expected to be finalized during Mr. Putin’s stay in Beijing.

Mr. Putin has been eager to talk up the potential of Chinese-Russian action in trade, security and challenging the U.S.-dominated international order that Moscow and Beijing resist.

“To say we have strategic cooperation is not enough anymore,” Mr. Putin told the official Chinese Xinhua News Agency in a pre-trip interview. “This is why we have started talking about a comprehensive partnership and strategic collaboration. ‘Comprehensive’ means that we work virtually on all major avenues; ‘strategic’ means that we attach enormous intergovernmental importance to this work.”

High-level discussions also are expected on the proposed sale to China of a 19.5 percent stake in Russia’s state-owned Rosneft oil company. Such a deal would be worth $11 billion to Russia.

“We need the money,” Mr. Putin acknowledged this week. Rosneft’s chairman, Igor Sechin, is part of the Russian delegation traveling to Beijing.

As tensions with the West escalate over conflicts in Ukraine and Syria, Moscow has increasingly sought closer ties with Beijing. In May 2014, just months after Russian troops seized Crimea from Ukraine, Mr. Putin presided over the signing of multiple deals in Beijing, including a landmark 30-year contract to sell natural gas to China worth $400 billion. That was followed by the purchase of a stake in Russia’s Sibur energy company by the Chinese company Sinopec. In September, during a visit to Beijing, Mr. Putin said Chinese-Russian relations had “reached a peak in their entire history.”

There is a growing awareness in Moscow, however, that China is unable and unwilling to provide a quick fix for Russia’s myriad economic problems.

“The euphoria has come down, and everybody understands that we cannot expect quick progress in economic relations with China,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, a well-connected political analyst in Moscow and editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a foreign policy journal. “This Russian rebalancing to Asia is a long-term process that will take years.”

Declining trade

The dramatic devaluation of the Russian currency and the worldwide collapse in oil prices have sparked a sharp decline in Russian-Chinese trade, which is projected to be $60 billion this year compared with $100 billion in 2014. Plans to open oil and gas fields in Siberia and construct more China-bound pipelines have not gone beyond the planning stages, mainly because of Beijing’s wariness over low energy prices.

“The Chinese and Russians are more or less clear that China has no capacity to bail out Russia,” said Alexander Gabuev, an Asia analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank. “Firstly, because it requires a lot of capital, but also because it requires a lot of interest from Chinese investors, who remain wary of the state of mismanagement of the Russian economy, which creates a lot of risks, no matter how much money you pour on the problem. China also has an oversupply of everything right now.”

Along with economic arrangements, Russia and China have intensified cooperation between their armed forces.

In May, Moscow and Beijing held their first computer-aided missile defense drills. This month, in a highly symbolic move, the Chinese and Russian navies sailed into disputed waters near the Diaoyu islands — known as the Senkakus in Japan — in the East China Sea. The islands are administered by Japan but claimed by China and Taiwan.

Most significantly, perhaps, Russia has sold China its cutting-edge S-400 surface-to-air missile system. The advanced system has a range of 250 miles and would allow China to strike any target in Taiwan. It also would boost China’s capabilities if the missiles were placed on Beijing’s artificial islands in the South China Sea. The United States has accused China of militarizing the South China Sea, while Beijing has lashed out against what it says are provocative American naval patrols and exercises in the region.

Anti-Americanism has also united the two countries, but sheer pragmatism makes it unlikely that Moscow and Beijing will enter into any formal military alliance against the United States.

“They will maintain some symbolic posture, some flag-waving, but they will refrain from any real action,” said Mr. Gabuev. “China doesn’t want to be dragged into a confrontation with the West over something as unimportant for it as Ukraine, while Russia feels the same over the South China Sea.”

The diverging interests is one reason the Obama administration has taken a relatively low-key approach to Mr. Putin’s regular visits to Beijing, analysts said.

Russia would like to present Sino-Russian relations as balancing or a bulwark against the West, but this notion is more posturing than reality,” Agnia Grigas, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, recently told Newsweek magazine. “It is Russia that needs this relationship more, both for pragmatic and political reasons.”

China will be keen to enlist Russia’s support for its “One Belt, One Road” development strategy. The ambitious project, a rival to the Washington-led Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade pact, is an attempt to build a trade and infrastructure network from China to Western Europe and Africa. Russia’s backing for the project is viewed as key in Beijing given Russia’s influence over Balkan region states.

Mr. Putin and Mr. Xi “understand each other, maybe even like each other,” said Nadine Godehardt, a China analyst at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin. “They have probably the same view on many things, but Xi Jinping has his own agenda, and it’s very clear: He wants to implement the Belt and Road initiative, and he needs Russia for that.”

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