China’s authoritarian President Xi Jinping and Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin share similar views on issues from human rights to Mikhail Gorbachev, in an increasingly close personal relationship that mirrors their countries’ converging interests.
Putin arrives in Beijing Sunday for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit and his 10th meeting with Xi since the Chinese president took office in March last year, according to the Communist mouthpiece People’s Daily.
Their growing rapport comes as their nations’ trade, investment and geopolitical interests align.
Moscow faces harsh Western criticism and sanctions over its seizure of Crimea and the conflict in eastern Ukraine, as well as opprobrium for its approach to dissent and homosexuality.
Beijing also has tense relationships over territorial disputes with neighbors such as Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines, and has recently been the target of criticism over demands for free elections in Hong Kong.
“The situation is pushing the two countries towards closer ties, both are facing very heavy pressures, Russia in Ukraine and China in Hong Kong,” said Vladimir Yevseyev, director of the Moscow-based independent Public Political Studies Center.
“Xi comes from a background close to the military-industrial complex, he is a man who is much closer to the structures of power enforcement than his predecessor (Hu Jintao),” Yevseyev said.
“Putin understands him better, their outlooks are identical,” he added. “Xi is inclined to confrontation if necessary, which pleases Putin.”
Relations between Moscow and Beijing have a chequered history. Territorial disputes between Tsarist Russia and Imperial China gave way to cooperation between the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic in the latter’s early years.
That, however, subsequently collapsed in a huge split over ideological issues such as how to promote revolution, who should lead the international communist movement, whether to engage with the capitalist world, and China’s development of nuclear weapons.
Eventually a tectonic shift in global geopolitics resulted when Beijing and Washington ended their mutual hostility and President Richard Nixon visited China.
The USSR broke up 23 years ago and Russia and China have since been brought together by mutual concerns, notably wariness of Washington.
The two countries often vote as a pair on the UN Security Council, where both hold a veto, sometimes in opposition to Western powers on issues such as Syria.
They have carried out joint military exercises on land and sea and are members of the BRICS emerging nations group, which also includes Brazil, India and South Africa.
Their economic links are burgeoning, with resource-rich Russia a natural supplier to China’s growing economy. After a decade of negotiations, the countries signed a huge 30-year gas deal said to be worth $400 billion during a visit to China by Putin in May.
“As Europe is going to cut its consumption of Russian gas, China offers an alternative market,” said Yevseyev.
Pining for Soviet days
APEC, which began with ministerial meetings on Friday before the main summit on Monday and Tuesday, accounts for more than 50 percent of global gross domestic product, 44 percent of world trade and 40 percent of the Earth’s population.
Russia, with its vast territory stretching from the Baltic to the Pacific, is the organization’s only European member.
The consensus-based grouping, which focuses on trade and economic cooperation, generally tries to paper over major differences at its summits.
But Xi, the scion of a Communist Party stalwart and war hero, and Putin, a former KGB agent who was stationed in East Germany when the Berlin Wall fell 25 years ago this month, are likely to take a common stand in the face of critics of Russian and Chinese policies, such as the United States, Canada, Australia and Japan.
They are also united by a common lament for the collapse of the Soviet Union and contempt for the man they hold responsible: Gorbachev, the leader who implemented “perestroika” and “glasnost” reforms in what was ultimately a failed bid to revitalize the one-party system.
Putin in 2005 called the breakup of the Soviet Union “the biggest geopolitical disaster” of the 20th century.
“Putin and Xi Jinping seem to be able to work together pretty well in part because I think both of them in different ways say, ‘you know who really did the wrong thing 25 years ago? Gorbachev,'” said Jeffrey Wasserstrom, professor of history at the University of California, Irvine, at a talk in Beijing.
“The Chinese Communist Party says that Gorbachev made a mistake, he let things fall apart,” he added. “Putin says Gorbachev made a mistake. That’s a weird kind of convergence.”