Putin Touts ‘Peak’ for Russia-China Relations As Two Countries Develop Military, Economic Ties

Two nations recently completed largest-ever joint naval exercise

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, is greeted by Chinese President Xi Jinping
Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, is greeted by Chinese President Xi Jinping / AP

Russian President Vladimir Putin said in an interview Tuesday that his country’s relations with China have reached a historic level as the two nations, often at odds with the United States, increase their military and economic cooperation.

Putin also said that Western sanctions imposed on Russia for its actions in Ukraine, which he called "illegitimate," have not undermined the deepening ties with China.

The Russian president is visiting China this week to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. The ceremony in Beijing will feature a large military parade where the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) could unveil a new missile known as a "carrier-killer," which some defense experts say could challenge U.S. naval dominance in the Asia-Pacific.

Putin made the comments during interviews with TASS and Xinhua, state news agencies in Russia and China, respectively.

"Russian-Chinese ties have now probably reached a peak in their entire history and continue developing," he said. "The partnership between Russia and China is based on sincere friendship and sympathy between our peoples, on deep respect and trust, consideration for each other’s key interests and commitment to make our countries flourish."

He cited the agreement to remove chemical weapons from Syria—despite recent reports that the Assad regime has retained deadly nerve agents—and the contested Iran nuclear deal as examples where Russia and China have cooperated to help solve "acute issues" on the international stage.

Putin has noticeably extended a hand toward China in recent months amid the crisis in Ukraine, where Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula in March 2014 and has been accused by the West of sending troops, weapons, and money to support the separatists there. The closer cooperation between the two countries comes despite decades of distrust and military tensions during the Soviet era.

Rather than impinging on the Russian partnership with China, Putin said Western financial penalties have encouraged domestic businesses to seek ties with their Chinese counterparts.

"I would not agree that the illegitimate restrictions imposed by certain Western countries against Russia have a negative impact on Russian-Chinese economic cooperation," he said. "On the contrary, this encourages our domestic business to develop stable business ties with China."

Russia and China are also forming a "strategic energy alliance" that "will play a significant role in international economic relations," Putin said.

The Russian gas giant Gazprom inked a $400 billion deal with China in May 2014 to transport gas from Russia’s east to its southern neighbor. Additionally, the Kremlin has touted plans for a Siberian gas pipeline that could access Chinese markets and make Russia less reliant on consumers in Europe. The European Union is expected to extend its sanctions on Russia into March of next year.

However, both gas deals have been slow to advance due to a lack of financing and enthusiasm from Beijing. China is still grappling with the aftershocks of its stock market plunge in recent weeks. Concerns about Beijing’s economy have further depressed global oil prices, Russia’s main export.

As a result, trade between Russia—currently in a recession—and China actually declined by nearly 30 percent in the first half of this year.

Cooperation between the Russian and Chinese militaries has visibly increased in recent months. The two nations just concluded their largest ever joint naval exercise in the Sea of Japan near Vladivostok, involving dozens of warships, submarines, aircraft, and at least 500 marines. The countries have also signed a pact on cyber security issues.

The increasing global presence of the Russian and Chinese militaries has raised concerns among U.S. military leaders. Russia has said it will shadow multinational naval exercises involving the United States and Ukraine in the next couple weeks in the Black Sea, which follows dozens of Russian bomber flights in the last year over Europe and near U.S. airspace.

Five Chinese naval ships were observed near the coast of Alaska on Wednesday, the first time the country’s vessels have been spotted in the area. Pentagon officials told the Wall Street Journal that the Chinese naval presence near Alaska was "different."

"It’s difficult to tell exactly, but it indicates some interest in the Arctic region," one defense official said.

China has also rankled the Obama administration and U.S. allies in the Asia-Pacific with its construction of manmade islands in the South China Sea, some outfitted with military radar and artillery stations.