Moscow and Beijing, both facing confrontation from the West, are likely to strengthen their alliance regardless of the outcome of a US-Russia summit, observers say.
US President Joe Biden is expected to raise contentious issues with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin when they meet in Geneva on Wednesday to discuss the deteriorating relationship between the Kremlin and the West.
China and Russia, meanwhile, have “no choice” but to move closer, especially after the G7 and Nato leaders took a tough line on the two countries this week, according to one observer.
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Nato on Monday said China presented “systemic challenges” to the rules-based international order – highlighting military cooperation with Russia as a concern – and that Russia’s actions constituted a “threat” to Euro-Atlantic security.
Ahead of the talks, Putin told NBC News in an interview aired on Saturday that the US-Russia relationship had “deteriorated to its lowest point in recent years”.
Biden said before the summit that the US wanted stable and predictable relations with Russia and was “not seeking conflict”, but would “respond in a robust and meaningful way” if Moscow engaged in harmful activities.
Putin also said there had been attempts to destroy the relationship between Russia and China but ties were at an “unprecedentedly high level”.
Biden is expected to raise issues including cyberattacks, aggression towards Ukraine and arms control during the talks with Putin, but observers say they are unlikely to make much progress.
Shi Yinhong, an international relations professor at Renmin University in Beijing, said Nato and the G7 had caused more antagonism between the US and Russia with their communiques and the Geneva talks would do little to change that.
“Biden wants to reiterate the hardline posture of the US when he goes to Geneva,” Shi said, adding that arms control would be a focus after the two sides agreed in January to extend the New START treaty limiting nuclear weapons.
“Perhaps they will talk about measures to prevent the deterioration of arms control.”
Shi said tensions with the West could lead to a stronger alliance between Russia and China. “In the current climate, China and Russia have no choice but to strengthen their strategic, military and diplomatic cooperation,” he said.
In its communique on Sunday, the Group of 7 called on Russia to investigate the use of chemical weapons and to hold accountable those behind cybercrimes. It also called for a new investigation into the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic and urged China to respect human rights and freedoms in Xinjiang and Hong Kong.
Lu Xiang, a US affairs expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said Washington could try to ease tensions by making concessions on Russia’s Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to Germany – a project the US has strongly opposed.
“Biden will test Putin and try to make an exchange with Putin in an attempt to split China-Russia relations,” Lu said.
But he added that Moscow would continue to pursue closer ties with Beijing since it affected Russian security, and there could be more engagement in the second half of the year.
Xi and Putin agreed to deepen cooperation in May when they took part in a virtual ceremony to launch the construction of four new reactors in a China-Russia nuclear project. Officials from the two nations have also said they would discuss their handling of US affairs.
However, Artyom Lukin, an associate professor at Far Eastern Federal University in Vladivostok, said Moscow and Beijing were unlikely to be pushed closer by the G7 and Nato statements since they were “already close enough”, and that China was likely to wait to see if the condemnations were followed by action.
“If they are, that could incentivise Beijing to offer Russia a closer collaboration. It remains to be seen how Russia would respond to such an offer,” Lukin said.
“If the West demonstrates substantive steps to improve relations with Russia, Moscow could become more reserved in further strengthening strategic bonds with Beijing.”
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Lukin said the Geneva summit would not resolve tensions between Russia and the US.
“However, it might be helpful in mitigating the hostility between the two great powers whose relations are currently at the lowest point since the early 1980s, when the Soviet Union and the US were locked in a Cold War stand-off,” Lukin said.
“For example, they could agree to end a mutual diplomatic war that in recent years saw scores of American and Russian diplomats being expelled, consular missions closed, and visa issuance suspended,” he said.
“If, in Geneva, they manage to fix relatively minor issues, that might indicate they would be able to solve the bigger problems in the future.”
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