July 1, 2016 7:00 pm JST
China up close

China's embattled president bets on foreign friends

KATSUJI NAKAZAWA, Nikkei senior staff writer

Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, shakes hands with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, in Beijing on June 25.

TOKYO -- Chinese President Xi Jinping is increasingly counting on the support of friendly countries as he finds himself in a difficult position over the South China Sea territorial dispute.

Tensions have been running high in recent months because of the row that has pitted China against the U.S., Japan and some other Asian countries.

China has created artificial islands to build military facilities and bolster its claim to most of the South China Sea, which overlaps the claims of other countries including the Philippines and Vietnam. Although the U.S. and Japan do not claim any islands in the sea, they have harshly denounced China's "militarization" of the area as a threat to freedom of navigation. The U.S. kicked off "freedom of navigation" operations in the sea in October to counter China's activities. 

China is now seeking to demonstrate, both at home and abroad, that it has many foreign friends and is not internationally isolated despite the maritime territorial issue. Xi met with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, twice in three days -- first in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, on June 23, and then in Beijing on June 25. But the two meetings were overshadowed in the news by Britain's decision to leave the European Union in a historic referendum on June 23, which sent shock waves and made headlines throughout the world.

Flurry of diplomacy

Putin made an official trip to China of less than 24 hours for talks with Xi on June 25, leaving Beijing the following day. Chinese media outlets described it as a "lightning China visit." He made the unusual trip, his second meeting with Xi in just three days, "in response to a strong request from the Chinese side," a diplomatic source said.

The meeting was also held to coincide with the opening in Beijing of the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank's first annual meeting, the source said. "China tried to demonstrate that it has many friends," the source said. "This reflects China's difficult position over the South China Sea issue."

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi made arrangements for the two Xi-Putin meetings. Wang himself visited Russia in March for talks with Putin, even missing the second half of the 12-day annual meeting of the National People's Congress, China's parliament.

Even as Britain's referendum on EU membership reverberated around the world, Chinese media outlets gave massive coverage to the China-Russia meetings instead, following instructions from the Communist Party's publicity department. On June 25, the top story on state-run China Central Television's evening news program was Xi's speech at the annual summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which was held in Tashkent on June 23-24.

The 7 p.m. news program then reported Putin's official visit to China and his talks with Xi on June 25, the meeting of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank on June 25-26, and the existence of many countries supporting China's position on the South China Sea dispute, in that order.

The news of Britain's vote to exit the EU, or Brexit, and its various repercussions was reported last.

The Global Times, a newspaper affiliated with the People's Daily -- the mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party -- also ran a big feature on relations between China and Russia on June 25.

China-Russia relations

Economic relations between China and Russia face some challenges, including a decline in the value of bilateral trade, but political relations are humming along. Xi attaches particular importance to his relationship with Putin. In the past three years or so, the Chinese president has visited Russia five times, while Putin has visited China four times. Through their frequent contacts, the two leaders have demonstrated their close relationship to the rest of the world.

In a snub to the U.S. and the EU, Xi and Putin sent a veiled message to the rest of the world through their recent meetings in Tashkent and Beijing that their countries will collaborate to take the initiative in efforts to maintain world order. The meetings showed China and Russia's strong sense of rivalry with the U.S.

Xi also made an official visit to the U.S. in September for talks with his American counterpart, Barack Obama. However, China and the U.S. failed to issue a comprehensive joint statement after the meeting, due to sharp differences over issues including the South China Sea.

In stark contrast, China and Russia issued a comprehensive joint statement after their leaders' June 25 meeting emphasizing their "strategic partnership" and calling for increased cooperation in a wide range of fields. The meeting was also attended by a total of seven deputy prime ministers from both sides, as it covered wide-ranging agenda items.

The Chinese delegation included Zhang Gaoli, a vice premier in charge of economic affairs. Zhang is also one of the seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee, the Communist Party's top decision-making body.

The two other Chinese vice premiers present at the June 25 China-Russia summit meeting were Wang Yang, who is in charge of external economic relations, and Liu Yandong.

The Russian team included Igor Shuvalov, the first deputy prime minister, and three other deputy premiers. Putin will visit China again in early September for a summit of leaders from the Group of 20 major economies in Hangzhou.

'Quasi-alliance' partners

"China and Russia are not formal alliance partners," said one Chinese researcher on foreign and security affairs. "But they are effectively 'quasi-alliance' partners in many realms."

At the top of Xi's agenda at the annual summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Tashkent was drumming up support for China in the South China Sea dispute. China is alarmed by the soon-to-be-issued ruling of an international arbitration court in the Netherlands, in a case brought by the Philippines over its territorial dispute with China. If the Hague tribunal hands down a decision in favor of the Philippines, China could lose face.

In Tashkent, Putin provided full support to Xi to prevent the Chinese leader from having to leave empty-handed. The main member countries of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization expressed support for China's position on the maritime dispute.

A joint statement issued at the meeting stopped short of specifying the support, but the outcome of the conference was satisfactory to Xi.

China also used the first annual meeting of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank to try to demonstrate that it is not shunned by the international community despite the territorial row. There are 57 founding members of the bank, including major European countries such as Britain, France, Germany and Italy. The bank's first annual meeting was also attended by representatives from 24 other countries wishing to join.

The bank approved the first batch of four loans to finance projects in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Indonesia. The loan for a power transmission line project in Bangladesh will be conducted by the bank alone, while the other loans will be syndicated ones involving the Asian Development Bank, the World Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

Bangladesh, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Indonesia are all important countries in China's push to create a "new Silk Road economic zone" linking itself to Europe and Africa by land and sea.

The China-led development bank will gradually increase bilateral loans in the future.

Domestic propaganda

China is now actively using domestic media outlets for propaganda purposes. They frequently report about countries supporting China on the South China Sea dispute, in accordance with the wishes of the Chinese government and the Communist Party.

But those who have actually been shown making favorable comments about China are limited to officials of political parties in countries that have no direct interests in the South China Sea, such as Nepal, a landlocked Asian country, and Africa's Tanzania. This makes it even more important for China to play up its quasi-alliance with Russia, a big power that wants to maintain and strengthen its presence in the Asia-Pacific region amid confrontations with the U.S. over Ukraine and other issues.

Apparently keeping in mind the South China Sea dispute, Xi said, "We oppose the use of force and threats of using force, casual introduction of sanctions and threats of sanctions, and a unilateral policy and unilateral actions without consent from the parties concerned."

Xi made the remarks at a joint press conference with Putin after their talks in Beijing. It is unusual for the top Chinese leader to publicly issue such a specific warning to other countries.

The big question now is: Will the rivalry become even clearer between the Japan-U.S. camp and the China-Russia side in the Asia-Pacific region, amid the strengthening partnership between Beijing and Moscow? Close attention should be paid to a planned summit meeting between Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Putin in Vladivostok, a port city in Russia's Far East, in September and a possible Japan visit by the Russian leader later this year.

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