Putin arrives in China, seeks to isolate US

Putin arrives in China, seeks to isolate US

Leaders of both Russia and China seem unconvinced that Assad is losing his grip on power.

The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, has arrived in China for meetings that appeared aimed at strengthening a partnership between the two countries and offsetting the influence of the United States.

Admired by the Chinese for his staying power as leader of Russia for 12 years, Putin discussed with president Hu Jintao their common approaches to Syria, according to state television.

They appeared certain to deal with their mutual interests in Iran and their efforts to squeeze the US out of Central Asia, Chinese and US analysts said. Both Beijing and Moscow also oppose a US plan for a missile-defence system in Poland and other parts of eastern Europe that is intended as protection against Iran.

Putin’s visit, during which he will participate in a summit meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, a regional security organisation that includes Russia, China and former Soviet republics in Central Asia, stood in stark contrast to his decision not to attend a summit meeting hosted by president Barack Obama last month in the United States.

After their meeting on Tuesday, Putin and Hu, in a show of unity, urged international support for UN envoy Kofi Annan’s peace plan for Syria, despite calls from Arab and western states for a tougher response to the bloodshed.

In what appeared to be a show of solidarity with Iran, its president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, will attend the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation meeting as an observer. The Kremlin announced that Putin would meet separately with Ahmadinejad. Later this month, Russia is scheduled to host the next round of talks among world powers on the Iranian nuclear programme.

Despite their commonality of interests, the relationship between China and Russia is seeded with historic rivalries from the Cold War, and the realisation in Moscow that the power equation has changed dramatically in recent years because China’s overall economy is now far larger than Russia’s.

The two countries have yet to come to an agreement on delivering gas from Russia, the world’s second biggest producer behind the United States, to China, one of the fastest-growing consumers. China had originally expected Putin would make Beijing his first overseas trip after his inauguration as president in early May. But Europe is Russia’s biggest energy customer, and Putin visited Germany and France last Friday, and dropped by Belarus and Uzbekistan in the past week.

The talks between Putin and Hu, along with the two-day Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit meeting, are fraught with the symbolism of two major powers interested in further developing a multilateral organisation that does not include the United States, and where Iran plays a role, if only as observer.

“Iran, too, is very keen on the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation,” said Vali Nasr, an Iran expert and former state department official in the Obama administration. “That it is happening in China reflects China’s increasing interest in Central Asia and also its desire to lead international and regional  alliances without the US”

An observer at the meeting

The six members of the organisation are China, Russia, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and the Kyrgyz Republic. Afghanistan, like Iran, will also attend the meeting in Beijing as an observer, a sign of China’s growing interests there after the planned 2014 withdrawal by the United States.

Despite what would seem to be a confluence of needs on energy, there was little chance that Russia and China would resolve the outstanding differences over delivery of gas to China in time for an agreement between the two leaders, said Arkady V Dvorkovich, a vice prime minister, on the eve of the visit.

The sticking point after two decades of talks remained price, with Russia wanting to sell its gas at $350 to $400 per 1,000 cubic metres, while China is prepared to pay only $200 to $250, according to Chinese press reports.

Indeed, the English language newspaper China Daily recently reported that China, frustrated by the stalemate on gas price between China National Petroleum Corp. and Gazprom, increased its supplies from Turkmenistan, a sign of how Beijing’s economic strength allows it to play the market.

Even so, the atmospherics on energy had improved and there was now an “opportunity for both sides to unfold a new age of energy cooperation,” said Xu Xiaojie, a former director of investment of overseas investment for the China National Petroleum Corporation.

On the subject of the violence in Syria, China and Russia, both permanent members of the UN Security Council, have blocked efforts by western powers to condemn or call for the removal of president Bashar Assad.

After the meeting between Hu and Putin, Chinese state television reported that “On the Syrian issue, the two heads of state said the international community should continue to support the joint Arab League/UN Special Envoy Annan’s mediation efforts and the UN monitoring mission, to promote a political solution to the problem in Syria.”

The two countries “cover each other’s back in the UN Security Council” on Syria, a senior US official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity in keeping with diplomatic protocol.

Both leaders seemed unconvinced that Assad was losing his grip on power, the official said, though he added that if it appeared that the Syrian leader had alienated the vast majority of the population, it was conceivable that Russia would distance itself from its longtime ally, with China following suit.

China reiterated the joint approach on Syria at the daily press briefing at the foreign ministry, hours after Putin’s arrival. “Both sides oppose external intervention in Syria and oppose regime change by force,” Liu Weimin, the spokesman said.

Within the realm of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, the Afghan leader, president Hamid Karzai, is likely to receive special attention. China’s vice foreign minister, Cheng Guoping, said Afghanistan was likely to gain full observer status from the organisation at the summit meeting.

China, in particular, has started talking to elements of the Taliban to try to ensure protection of its iron ore, steel and other mineral interests in Afghanistan after the US withdrawal, said Sajjan Gohel, international security director of the Asia-Pacific Foundation, based in London, who visited Beijing recently.

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