Oct 18, 2023 - World

China's Belt and Road pulls Putin closer

Photo illustration of Vladimir Putin wearing a hard hat, safety goggles and reflective vest.

Photo illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios. Photo: Getty Images

Russian President Vladimir Putin lauded China's Belt and Road Initiative during his visit to Beijing this week, where leaders from more than 130 countries are gathering for the largest international forum China has hosted since before the pandemic.

Why it matters: The Belt and Road Forum demonstrates the convening power Xi Jinping has built in the decade since he launched his signature foreign policy initiative — and the challenge China now poses as Xi envisions China as a rival global power to the U.S.

  • The initiative has enabled China to encroach on Russia's traditional sphere of influence in Central Asia, but it has also nurtured an emerging authoritarian-friendly alternative global system that benefits the Kremlin's revisionist goals.
  • Putin is offering full-throated support for China's world order-building project as Western sanctions have cut off much of Russia's access to developed economies.
  • Putin's visit to China is only his second foreign trip after an international arrest warrant was issued for him in March.

What he's saying: "We welcome President Xi Jinping's initiative and are willing to cooperate to promote the implementation of the initiative," Putin told Chinese state broadcaster CGTN.

  • "This initiative represents an excellent and correct top-level design that is continually evolving and being implemented," Putin said. "Within the framework of cooperation, no one imposes its will on others."
  • Putin added that Russia hopes to expand the Eurasian Economic Union — established in 2014 and including member states Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Armenia — into a "Greater Eurasia, which aligns perfectly with China's Belt and Road Initiative."

Between the lines: Putin echoed Beijing's talking points about the Belt and Road Initiative while also promoting Russia's economic and geopolitical plan for the region as complementary, not competing with, the Belt and Road.

  • "There is growing realization that China's influence is set to grow in Central Asia," so Russia's leaders are "accommodating this reality," Alexander Gabuev, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told Axios.
  • Putin's and Xi's interests in Central Asia also overlap, Gabuev said. "They want to keep secular authoritarian regimes there. They want to keep those regimes not ideological and not Islamist, because in Russia and China's view that's the best guarantee of stability," and they also "want to keep western influence at bay."

Details: Trade between China and Russia has risen dramatically over the past year, and is expected to reach $200 billion by the end of the year, according to Russian projections.

  • "For Russia, it's very important to substitute the lost markets in the West, and it's very important to keep its economy afloat, especially during the wartime to fuel the war," Yurii Poita, head of the Asia-Pacific section at Ukraine's Center for Army, Conversion and Disarmament Studies, told Axios.
  • Putin's main goal in showing support for the BRI is to continue to expand Russia's energy, trade and investment ties with China and create greater "strategic depth" in its economic ties, Poita said, while Xi wants to increase China's food and energy security by sourcing more from Russia.

What to watch: The BRI has expanded Beijing's sway around the world, particularly in developing and emerging economies, but Xi is looking to revamp the initiative to make it less risky for international partners, the Wall Street Journal reports.

  • A growing number of countries have been saddled with unsustainable debt due in part to the infrastructure contracts they signed with Chinese companies through the BRI.
  • A scaled-down BRI would also be more sustainable for China, which is experiencing serious economic headwinds amid ongoing real estate and debt crises.

Go deeper: An unstable Russia could hinder Beijing's ambitions

Editor's note: This story was corrected to reflect that the international arrest warrant for Vladimir Putin was issued in March (not last year).

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