November 25, 2016 7:00 pm JST
China up close

Xi jealous of Trump-Putin bromance

KATSUJI NAKAZAWA, Nikkei senior staff writer

TOKYO -- In Barack Obama's final meeting as U.S. president with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Lima, Peru, Xi mentioned his phone conversation with President-elect Donald Trump. 

Xi was quoted by China's state-run media as telling Obama that he would work with Trump to overcome differences, including those over global issues, in a constructive manner and enhance relations between the two countries from a new perspective, one that seeks to avoid conflict and confrontation.

Sino-Russo sweethearts

Despite the positive sentiment about Trump, Xi is likely more concerned about the future policy stance of Russian President Vladimir Putin, with whom Xi met just before his meeting with Obama. 

Unlike Obama, Trump has praised Putin as a strong leader. The plaudit shows Trump's intention to improve relations between the U.S. and Russia. 

In an editorial in mid-November, the Global Times, a newspaper on international affairs under the wing of the People's Daily, the Chinese Communist Party's official paper, speculated about possible changes in international relations after Trump takes office.

Warning that a warming between the U.S. and Russia may affect close ties developed by China and Russia in recent years, the Global Times stressed that the Sino-Russo relationship should be the most stable bilateral tie involving a future with a triangle composed of China, the U.S. and Russia. 

The frank comment, rare for a Chinese newspaper, sounds like a declaration of love made to prevent a sweetheart from changing their mind. It does, in fact, reflect Xi's thinking.

Relations between the U.S. and Russia have deteriorated due to the Ukraine conflict, while tensions have also risen between the U.S. and China over the South China Sea. In response, China and Russia have deepened ties with the common purpose of checking the U.S. 

Although China maintains a nonaligned stance, China and Russia have recently had a honeymoon relationship, which even Chinese scholars are describing as, in effect, a quasi-alliance. 

Xi and Putin frequently meet. But if Putin establishes close ties with Trump, it would deal a serious blow to China, making it harder for China to play the Russian card in relations with the U.S. 

Japan and Russia buddy up

Xi is also worried about a rapprochement between Japan and Russia. In Lima, Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe held a one-to-one meeting.

While Japan and Russia are locked in difficult territorial negotiations, Japan's economic cooperation in the Far East is important to Russia. An improvement in Russo-Japanese relations will enable Russia to diversify sales destinations of oil, natural gas and other energy sources and reduce the current risk of being forced to sell to China at low prices.

Japan needs to be aware that Russia will find Japan less important if Moscow improves relations with Washington. The chances of Putin making concessions to Japan to check the U.S. could be eliminated. 

Abe became the first foreign leader to hold talks with President-elect Trump when the prime minister made a stop in New York on his way to Lima. At the APEC summit, this made Abe very popular as everyone wanted to know about Trump's views. 

Details of the discussion between Abe and Trump have not been disclosed. But they must have talked about Japan-Russia relations and those between the U.S. and Russia. 

Putin is scheduled to meet with Abe in Yamaguchi Prefecture, the Japanese premier's constituency, in mid-December in western Japan. They will be staying at a local hot spring inn. 

In a bid to create an image of having a close personal relationship with the Russian leader, Abe calls Putin by his first name. 

Keenly interested in maintaining good ties with Putin down the road, Xi made an unexpected move at the APEC summit: He sat down for a 10-minute talk with Abe. 

In September, Xi met with Abe at the meeting of the Group of 20 major economies in Hangzhou, in China's Zhejiang Province, as a matter of courtesy because he was hosting the summit. In Lima, however, it was not necessary for Xi to speak with Abe. Their meeting in Peru can be seen as a change of stance by Xi. 

Amid uncertainty over Trump's stance on China and the possibility of closer ties between Japan and Russia, Xi decided to talk with Abe because he knows it is important to secure options. China also needs to prepare for Premier Li Keqiang's visit to Japan for a trilateral summit among Japan, China and South Korea.

But China has not recognized Xi's discussion with Abe as a formal meeting. Some Chinese media reported it as a "brief conversation at Japan's request." As usual, relations with China are tricky.

A Russian return to the G-8?

Russia was suspended from the Group of Eight leading industrial nations two years ago in the wake of its military intervention in Ukraine.

But if the U.S. and Russia as well as Japan and Russia steadily improve relations, Russia may be invited back into the group in a few years, with only Europe remaining as an obstacle to such a move. 

China places great importance on the G-20 and does not want to see Russia return to the G-8. Now that the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade liberalization pact is on the brink of collapse, Beijing is eager to prevent another move that omits China from spheres of influence. 

As a desperate countermeasure, Xi managed to secure a pledge from Putin at their meeting in Lima to visit China in May 2017 for an event related to its Belt and Road Initiative. 

The U.S.-Russia-China triangle is always in a state of flux, and upcoming moves by Trump and Putin could significantly alter the existing balance of power in the world. These events will be closely linked to Japan's future.

Get Insights on Asia In Your Inbox

To read the full story, Subscribe or Log in

Get your first month for $0.99

Redeemable only through the Subscribe button below

Once subscribed, you can…

  • Read all stories with unlimited access (5 articles per month without subscription)
  • Use our smartphone and tablet apps

To read the full story, Subscribe or Log in

3 months for $9
SUBSCRIBE TODAY

Take advantage of this limited offer.
Subscribe now to get unlimited access to all articles.

To read the full story, Update your account

We could not renew your subscription.
You need to update your payment information.

To read the full story, Subscribe or Log in

Once subscribed, you can…

  • Read all stories with unlimited access (5 articles per month without subscription)
  • Use our smartphone and tablet apps

To read the full story, Subscribe or Log in

3 months for $9
SUBSCRIBE TODAY

Take advantage of this limited offer.
Subscribe now to get unlimited access to all articles.

To read the full story, Update your account

We could not renew your subscription.
You need to update your payment information.