BEIJING/MOSCOW May 16 Increasingly isolated by
the West over Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin will
hope for a sympathetic ear on a visit next week to China, which
is also being more assertive in its territorial disputes with
Chinese President Xi Jinping has made a big public show of
underscoring the importance of ties with Russia, and Moscow was
the first capital he visited after assuming the presidency last
year. Xi also attended the Winter Olympics in Sochi at Putin's
But, while the two see eye to eye on many international
diplomatic issues, including the conflict in Syria, and
generally vote as one on the United Nations Security Council,
China has not proved so willing to support Russia on Ukraine.
Beijing has adopted a cautious response to that crisis, not
wanting to alienate a key ally, and not commenting directly on a
referendum in which Crimea voted overwhelmingly to join Russia,
lest it set a precedent for its own restive regions, like Tibet.
China has also said, though, it would like to continue to
develop "friendly cooperation" with Ukraine, and respects the
ex-Soviet state's independence, sovereignty and territorial
Zhang Deguang, honorary chairman of the Foreign
Ministry-backed China Foundation for International Studies and a
former Chinese ambassador to Russia, said China would not want
Ukraine overshadowing Putin's two-day visit, which begins in
Shanghai on Tuesday.
"The aim of this visit is not to discuss the Ukraine issue,"
Zhang told Reuters. "You can't describe China's position (on
Ukraine) as one of support for Russia or lack of support for
Russia. It's a very complex issue and China has not taken
SYMPATHY, NOT SUPPORT?
Underscoring China's dilemma over Ukraine, it has yet to
explicitly state in public whether it recognises either
Ukraine's new government, or the referendum in Crimea.
Vasily Kashin, an expert on Russia-China relations at CAST,
a Moscow-based defence think-tank, said Russia is likely to try
to use Putin's trip to boost ties with China at a time when
relations with the West are strained by sanctions over Ukraine.
"The prospects of our relations with the West are unclear
because of everything happening around Ukraine. We are facing
economic pressure and pressure in security areas and sanctions,"
Kashin said. "The only major economic power that is independent
from the U.S. and has stated support for Russia vis a vis
sanctions is China."
Even if he doesn't get an outright public show of support
from Xi on Ukraine, Putin could find a sympathetic ear in China.
"I think Putin does hope to win China's support on the
Ukraine issue. Because on this topic the United States, the
West, have joined up to create trouble in Ukraine which is aimed
at Russia. And they are not only aiming at Russia," Liu Guchang,
another former ambassador to Russia and a member of an advisory
committee for the foreign ministry, told Reuters.
"This is a global strategy of the United States and the
West, to push for a Cold War. Once they are done with Russia,
they will look to Central Asia and then China, using Japan."
Kashin said Xi and Putin are expected to talk about arms
deals, as well as Moscow possibly giving Beijing a 'favoured
status' on arms sales, lifting export restrictions for China
that apply to most arms exports for other countries. Many
western governments have at least partly cut their military
cooperation with Moscow.
Mutual trade between China and Russia has more than doubled
in five years, topping $89 billion in 2013, though the trade
volume is still about five times smaller than Russia's with the
European Union, and far smaller than China's trade with the
The visit could finally see a deal for Russia's top producer
Gazprom to pump gas to China, wrapping up a decade of
talks in which price has been the main obstacle.
Europe's plans to reduce its dependence on Russian energy as
the Ukraine crisis threatens supplies have spurred efforts by
Gazprom to finalise a deal this month.
A deal, seen as vital if Russia is to be a big player in
Asian gas markets, could see Gazprom make price concessions,
people in the industry have said, hoping China will agree to pay
$10-$11 per mmBtu (million British thermal units). China is
believed to pay $9 per mmBtu to Turkmenistan, the Central Asian
state that beat Gazprom to the Chinese market.
"If there is time during Putin's visit to China, we'll
strive to have the relevant companies sign relevant natural gas
cooperative agreements with the two countries' heads of state as
witnesses," Vice Foreign Minister Cheng Guoping said at a
briefing on Thursday. "Currently, the main differences between
the two sides are still over the issue of natural gas prices."
Chinese oil industry officials remain cool, however, as the
growing prospect of North American gas exports to Asia from the
shale revolution, and increased Turkmen gas production, means
China is in a position to bide its time and also seek more
access to Russia's upstream assets.
"Unless Russia makes substantial changes in policies like
allowing China more participation in Russia's upstream oil and
gas exploration, or involving Chinese in building the Russian
part of the gas pipelines, there won't be too much incentive for
CNPC (state-run China National Petroleum Corp ) to
clinch a deal," said Chen Weidong, head of energy research at
China National Offshore Co, the parent of CNOOC Ltd.
(Additional reporting by Chen Aizhu and Michael Martina in
BEIJING; Editing by Ian Geoghegan)