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19 June


Coronavirus poses test for Russia and China’s friendship

Moscow and Beijing have become increasingly close in recent years, but border closures and imported cases have ‘cast a shadow’ over their relationship

Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin Photo: kremlin.ru

/NOVOSTIVL/ The relationship between Russia and China has come under scrutiny as the Covid-19 pandemic threatens to put their increasingly close ties under strain.This article appeared in SCMP.

The two countries have promised to work together to fight the disease and have both denounced American attempts to blame Beijing for the outbreak, but the rise in Russian cases threatens to undermine China’s own efforts to stop it spreading – particularly in the border province of Heilongjiang.

Russia’s economy is also suffering both from the lockdown needed to fight the disease and the global slump in oil prices.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin have pledged to maintain a united front in fighting the disease, holding three phone conversations since March.

But some observers believe Russia is moving closer to the United States, and note Putin has spoken to Donald Trump six times in the same period.

The two leaders issued a statement on April 26 to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the first meeting between US and Soviet troops during the second world war on the banks of the Elbe.

The statement said that the “Spirit of the Elbe” is an “example of how our countries can put aside differences, build trust, and cooperate in pursuit of a greater cause”.

“As we work today to confront the most important challenges of the 21st century, we pay tribute to the valour and courage of all those who fought together to defeat fascism. Their heroic feat will never be forgotten,” it said.

The Wall Street Journal reported that the statement had raised eyebrows among US officials and politicians because of the political differences between the two nations and in China, some observers took it as a sign of improving relations between US and Russia.

“The statement on April 26 means that Russia and the US can work together,” said Shi Yinhong, an international relations professor at Renmin University. “While the relationship between China and the US is worsening, the personal ties between Putin and Trump endure.”

Covid-19 has infected more than 260,000 people and killed over 2,000 in Russia, but Heilongjiang has reported more than 380 imported cases so far, most of them coming from Russia.

Shi said the pandemic had cast a shadow over relations between China and Russia, partly because of Moscow’s early move to shut border crossings in late January despite Beijing’s opposition.

“Russia shut the borders with China very early, causing problems for Chinese nationals in the country,” Shi said.

He also said Russia had mishandled the outbreak inside its own borders. “At the beginning of the outbreak, Russian policy to contain the pandemic was too loose, and now the situation has become very severe. Under such circumstances, Putin seems to have hidden himself. This kind of handling won’t satisfy China … and now their infections soared and this poses a huge risk to China”.

In a phone call with Xi on April 16, Putin said that Russia opposed any smears against China over its handling of the pandemic, according to the Chinese foreign ministry.

Both nations did not name any third nation in their statement, but it was widely seen as referring to the US which has frequently blamed China for failing to control the disease.

In another telephone conversation on May 8, Xi compared efforts to defeat the coronavirus that causes Covid-19 to the struggle against fascism in the second world war.

China has also sent medical teams and materials to Russia.

Shutdowns imposed to stop the spread of the virus have harmed both countries’ economies, but Russia has been particularly hard hit by the recent slump in oil prices.

Some observers have warned that Russia’s oil exports to China may be affected after a contractor company working for Gazprom, Russia’s major natural gas producer, said it would stop operations at a Siberian gas field that supplies China after a number of workers became infected.

But Alexander Gabuev, senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Centre, said the crisis could allow China to expand its influence and its efforts to revive the economy could boost demand for Russian energy.

Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Centre, a foreign policy think tank, said while the outbreak had put relations between the two countries under strain “so far, both countries have passed this test”.