More than meets the eye to Xi aide’s Moscow visit
CPC General Office head and member of the CPC Central Secretariat Li Zhanshu met with President Vladimir Putin of Russia on March 19 at the Kremlin, purportedly to lay the groundwork for Chinese president Xi Jinping’s Moscow visit in May to attend the 70th anniversary ceremony of the end of World War II in Europe, according to Hong Kong-based Phoenix New Media.
The visit has prompted speculation that there is an ulterior motive for Li’s presence in Moscow, given that this kind of visit is normally undertaken by the minister of foreign affairs and there is no precedent for the director of the General Office taking this role.
Li, as a member of the Politburo as well as being secretary of the Central Secretariat and director of the CPC General Office, has been described by the Chinese media as Xi’s chief of administration and is said to be one of his most trusted aides, with the two having a similar relationship to that of Putin and the chief of the Presidential Administration of Russia, Sergei Ivanov.
He is possibly delivering a message or a letter directly from Xi or could be eager to get to the truth behind Putin’s recent 10-day disappearance at the same time as getting a better understanding of recent political and economic developments in the country, particularly as they relate to the ongoing sanctions imposed by the US and Europe. This may require private talks which would not be appropriate for the foreign minister to engage in.
Li’s visit suggests the special relationship between China and Russia and the close links between the senior leadership of the two countries.
As well as preparing for Xi’s attendance at a military parade in Red Square in Moscow to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the day Nazi Germany fell to the Soviet Union, Li is likely to discuss the details of Putin’s attendance at China’s commemoration ceremony for the 70th anniversary of Japan’s surrender set to be held in Beijing in September.
Putin’s attendance at the event was confirmed for the first time March 20 by Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hong Lei, citing comments made by Ivanov the previous day.
The ceremony in Russia will serve as a test for Russia’s foreign relations at a time when it is being isolated by the West.
The president’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov stated that Xi and Putin will sign an agreement on the eve of the May 9 event, likely a deal involving Russia supplying natural gas to China via a western pipeline. Russia’s energy minister, Alexander Novak, has stated that Moscow plans to bring negotiations on a second gas supply deal to a close around the start of May, although he did not confirm the date of the signing ceremony.
Negotiations between Russia’s state-owned natural gas company Gazprom and China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) have largely concluded, but there are still disagreements over pricing. The quibbling over price and concerns from China that the western line will threaten the supply to the eastern line has drawn out the negotiations for over nine years.
Beijing does not expect the improvement in Sino-Russian relations to get in the way of its relations with other countries and Xi is also set to visit the US in the second half of the year. Sino-Japanese relations are also warming up, which suggests that Chinese diplomacy has matured. However, there will be a lot of eyes on Xi when he makes the visit in May, especially if the Ukraine crisis has still not been resolved.
Putin is reported to have said that he hopes to push forward cooperation between the two countries across a range of different sectors and that through the commemorative events, historical justice will be upheld and world peace will be defended, without an attempt to whitewash the aggressors, according to China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency.
Li reportedly told Putin that Xi puts a lot of importance on the continued development of Sino-Russian relations and holds his working relationship and personal friendship with the Russian leader in high regard.
The two leaders have met eight times within the last two years, reaching consensus on a series of issues and expanding their comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership. The CPC General Office stated that it is willing to increase communication and cooperation with the Presidential Administration of Russia in this regard.
Li said that China and Russia made important contributions on the European and Asian battlefields of World War II and that the joint commemoration by Russian and Chinese leaders is aimed at remembering those that lost their lives, revisiting history and to serve as a warning for the future, in the hope that the peace that resulted from the war can be sustained.
On the same day as the meeting with Putin, Li met with Ivanov and the two then held a joint press conference.