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29 November
Sunday

Russia

G7 could bring Moscow closer to Beijing

Vladimir Putin’s 20-year rule has seen relations with China warm and even the lure of seeing sanctions lifted may not be enough to reverse the trend

Photo: Kremlin

/NOVOSTIVL/ Donald Trump’s latest effort to readmit Russia to the Group of 7 is likely to tip the delicate balance between Moscow, Beijing and Washington, but so far it has received a chilly response from traditional US allies and some diplomatic observers believe it may have the opposite effect to that intended. This article appeared in SCMP.

The US President’s olive branch was widely seen as an attempt to drive a wedge between China and Russia, but analysts warn that any realignment of the relationship between the three powers may only create more geopolitical uncertainty in the post-coronavirus world.

“As the pandemic crisis deepens in the US, Trump desperately needs to deflect attention, especially in the face of an uphill battle for re-election,” said Ma Zhengang, a former Chinese ambassador to Britain.

“By turning to Russia despite their acrimonious ties, it takes aim directly at China. There is little doubt that the US will be more focused on China, but it is still an open question if and how far Washington can achieve its goals,” said Ma, a former president of the China Institute of International Studies, a government-linked think tank in Beijing.

Last Friday Trump hit out at China’s plans to impose a national security law in Hong Kong, threatening retaliation, and criticised Beijing’s initial handling of the pandemic.

The following day he floated the idea of inviting Russia – along with Australia, South Korea and India – to join a G7 summit in the US later this year.

It was the third year in a row that Trump has suggested Putin be allowed to rejoin the bloc of advanced economies.

Russia was suspended from the then G8 in 2014 following its invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea.

While Australia, South Korea and India said they would accept Trump’s offer for an expanded summit, his olive branch got the cold shoulder from Russia and was quickly rejected by the European Union, Canada and Britain.

China sees Russia’s return to the G7 as an attempt to drive a wedge between Beijing and Moscow and form an anti-China alliance, said Shi Ze, a former Chinese diplomat in Russia and senior fellow at the China Institute of International Studies in Beijing.

“It is a trial balloon to test the triangular relations between the three countries in a bid to score diplomatic points ahead of the presidential elections.

“But frankly it is quite risky for the embattled president to play the Russia card in times of domestic turmoil,” Shi said.

Other analysts argued there was no need to overstate the significance of Trump’s offer.

“Beijing fully understands the need for Moscow to seek a reset in its relations with the US and other Western countries … and breaking its international isolation stemming from Crimea,” Pan Dawei, a specialist in Russian affairs at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, said.

But considering the widespread wariness about Russia and Vladimir Putin in particular among US politicians, the intelligence community and public, it is unlikely that Trump, who is accused of having a soft spot for strongmen like Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping, will be able to change attitudes.

According to the Pew Research Center, while negative views of China among Americans have reached a historical high in March thanks to Covid-19 and increasing trade and geopolitical tensions, American perceptions of Russia also hit a 10-year low in 2019, with only 18 per cent having a positive view of the country.

Vladimir Portyakov, deputy director of the Institute of Far Eastern Affairs at the Russian Academy of Sciences, also said Putin did not have any real reason to seriously consider attending the summit or change his current friendly stance towards China.

“Russia-China relations have been a success story during the last two decades [under Putin’s rule], especially when compared with Russia’s relations with the bulk of other countries,” he said.

In 2018 Portyakov described China and Russia as “reluctant allies” who had long and bitter historical memories over past wars and territorial disputes and different global ambitions that caused deep-rooted distrust.

But he argued pressure from the US was likely to accelerate the China-Russia alignment.

Now Portyakov argues that Washington’s and Beijing’s efforts to shift the blame for the devastating coronavirus crisis is another moment of reckoning for Moscow.

“From the very start, Russia found all the US attempts to make Beijing a scapegoat for Covid-19 absolutely counterproductive. And in a way the US pressure on China contributed to strengthening of the Beijing-Moscow ties,” said Portyakov.

As a result, he said, the triangle between the three powers would “become less and less equilateral”, as Washington moved away from both Beijing and Moscow.

Rising US-China tensions are a godsend for Putin that both distracts Washington and provides an opportunity to seek concessions from both, according to Mark N Katz, a professor of government and politics at George Mason University.

“In the economic realm, Moscow certainly does need Beijing more than Beijing needs Moscow,” he said. “Putin is unlikely to oppose China or join with the US against it if there is a new cold war between Washington and Beijing.

“On the other hand, Moscow will not want to link itself too closely with China against the US either, but occupy a position somewhat between Washington and Beijing, albeit one closer to the latter.”

But Katz challenged the prevailing views among Chinese and Russian scholars thatTrump’s offer to reinstate Russia in the G7 was meant to target China, and said his dislike of Barack Obama, who was president at the time of Russia’s expulsion, was an important motivation.

“I really don’t think that Trump sees it as being [an anti-China move] at all. If anything, it is more of an anti-Obama move – part of Trump’s desire to undo everything Obama did. I also think that Trump sees Putin as more of a kindred spirit than the other G7 leaders,” he said.

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