The pace of Russian-Chinese contacts has suddenly intensified with Russian President Putin hosting this month no fewer than three senior officials of the Chinese government, each one following the other in quick succession.
The first was Zhang Gaoli, the First Vice-Chairman of China’s State Council (ie. China’s deputy prime minister). He has now been followed by Zhang Dejiang, the Chairman of the Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress (China’s parliament), who met with Putin yesterday.
Now comes news of the pending visit of Li Zhanshu, the Director of the General Office of the Communist Party of China, who the Chinese Foreign Ministry says will visit Moscow on 25th April 2017, where he will meet over several days with President Putin and with various other senior Russian officials.
Of these three officials the most important is Li Zhanshu, whose position approximates to that of Anton Vaino, the head of the Russian President’s Executive Office.
Li and Vaino can be described as the chiefs of the staff of their respective leaders, Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin. Moreover it has been clear for some time that contact between China and Russia does not take place through the foreign ministries of the two countries (their foreign ministers – Wang Yi and Sergey Lavrov – rarely meet), but at some other level, and it is likely that it is conducted by Li and Vaino, who have immediate access to their chiefs, Xi and Putin.
If so then Li’s visit to Moscow is the visit to the Russian capital of the Chinese official in charge of managing China’s relations with its closest ally, Russia.
What explains this visit, coming so soon after the visits of two other high-ranking Chinese officials to Moscow?
At the most basic level it is likely that Li’s visit, like those of Zhang Gaoli and of Zhang Dejiang, is intended to prepare the way for Putin’s visit to China next month. It is clear that this visit is going to be a major visit, and is seen as such by the leaderships of the two countries. It is likely that intense discussions are underway to fine-tune arrangements for this visit, and to complete the details of whatever agreements are expected to be signed during it.
However it is difficult to avoid the impression that at least in Li’s case his visit is in part intended to coordinate with the Russians in light of the Trump administration’s ham-fisted attempts to cause trouble between Beijing and Moscow. What suggests that this is the reason for Li’s visit is that there was so little advanced notice of it, suggesting that unlike the visits by Zhang Gaoli and Zhang Dejiang it was not arranged long ago but was arranged hurriedly at short notice.
That the Trump administration is indeed trying to make trouble between Beijing and Moscow has been all but confirmed by no less a person than President Trump’s National Security Adviser, General H.R. McMaster, who in an interview with ABC television said the following
What we do know is that, in the midst of responding to the mass murder of the Syrian regime, the president (Trump) and the first lady hosted an extraordinarily successful conference, summit, with President Xi and his team. And not only did they establish a very warm relationship, but… they worked together as well in connection with the response to the mass murder on the part of the Assad regime in connection with the U.N. vote. I think President Xi was courageous in distancing himself from the Russians, isolating really the Russians and the Bolivians… And I think the world saw that, and they (Xi) saw, well, what club do you want to be in? The Russian-Bolivian club? Or the — in the club with the United States, working together on our mutual interests and the interests of peace, security
(bold italics added)
This comment serves as a further illustration of the inexperience and naivety of US diplomacy in the age of Trump. It confirms that China abstained in the vote in the UN Security Council on 12th April 2017 following a personal request from Trump to Xi Jinping. However it completely misconstrues the meaning of that act.
The Chinese almost certainly cleared their decision to abstain in the UN Security Council vote ahead of the vote with Moscow. From their point of view and that of the Russians a decision by China to abstain would have meant little. There was no possibility that the draft Resolution would pass because Russia had already made known it would veto it, whilst the US had already removed the most offensive words in the draft of the Resolution before it was put to the vote by deleting wording in the draft which blamed the Khan Sheikhoun incident on the Syrian government before any investigation had taken place.
Why would China hurt and humiliate Trump – whom Xi Jinping had met just days before – by refusing his request and voting against a Resolution which was no longer controversial, which did not concern an issue important to China, and which the Chinese knew the Russians were going to veto anyway?
What was undoubtedly intended by the Chinese as a simple diplomatic courtesy to the new US President over an issue which for China is of secondary importance, is however now being misconstrued by the Trump administration as a big step by China against Russia.
To be clear, it would have been an entirely different matter if China had voted for the Resolution after Russia had made known it would vote against it. In that case it would have been legitimate to speak of a serious rift over the Syrian issue between Beijing and Moscow. However an abstention should not be construed in that way.
China has previously abstained on votes in the UN Security Council on Syria and Ukraine, and it is far from unusual for China to sidestep Western criticism by acting in this way over issues which it regards as being of only secondary importance to itself. The Russians understand this fully, and have never shown any concern about it.
It is however fully understandable that in light of the sort of comments that have been coming out of the Trump administration the Chinese leadership should now be pulling out the stops to make clear that China’s alliance with Russia is unaffected and as strong as always.
The result is a series of articles which have appeared in the Chinese media, which have been strongly critical of the Trump administration’s actions (discussed here and here), a strong statement reaffirming support for Russia’s position in Syria rushed out by the BRICS group, which is unofficially led by China and Russia, and the visits by the three important Chinese dignitaries to Moscow.
The statement by the BRICS group is the most public expression of these Chinese steps. It seems to have been hurriedly put together at a meeting of the BRICS special envoys in Visakhapatnam in India, and was published on 12th April 2017 – the same day as the UN Security Council vote – in a way that was obviously intended to offset any misconception arising from China’s decision to abstain in that vote.
Its full text has been published by Russia’s Foreign Ministry, and was undoubtedly agreed in advance following detailed discussions at the highest levels of the Russian and Chinese governments, but also involving the governments of the three other BRICS states: India, Brazil and South Africa.
The statement reaffirms the primacy of international law in settling disputes in the Middle East and elsewhere, and importantly it reaffirms the primary role of the UN Security Council as the only body empowered to authorise the use of force
BRICS Special Envoys on Middle East expressed their concern about internal crises that have emerged in a number of states in the region in recent years. They firmly advocated that these crises should be resolved in accordance with the international law and UN Charter, without resorting to force or external interference and through establishing broad national dialogue with due respect for independence, territorial integrity and sovereignty of the countries of the region…..
….In the course of the meeting, the role of the UN Security Council as the international body bearing the primary responsibility for maintaining international peace and security was underlined. It was also stressed that military interventions that have not been authorized by the Security Council are incompatible with the UN Charter and unacceptable.
(bold italics added)
The highlighted words are straightforward criticisms of the US missile strike on Al-Shayrat air base on 6th April 2017, which was carried out without authorisation from the UN Security Council, though the statement is careful not to refer to the US by name.
Li Zhanshu’s pending visit to Moscow is almost certainly connected to these steps.
The idea that China can be sweet-talked out of an alliance with Russia it has spent 25 years creating as a result of a single meeting between the US and Chinese Presidents during which nothing of substance was agreed, is fanciful in the extreme. It is a further illustration of the lack of understanding or experience of international diplomacy within the Trump administration.
President Trump is right to believe that establishing good personal relations with foreign leaders is critically important for the successful conduct of diplomacy. The fact that he spent time meeting and talking to Xi Jinping and made a serious effort to establish a personal rapport with him promises well for the future. It contrasts with the arrogant disdain towards foreign leaders of Barack Obama, who as President barely communicated with foreign leaders on a personal level at all.
However President Trump has to be realistic about what such personal diplomacy can do. If he over-invests in it, and thinks he can change the entire foreign policy of a superpower like China by a single meeting and a few phone calls, then he is setting himself up for failure and disappointment.
In the meantime the way President Trump through his officials has misconstrued the habitual courtesy of the Chinese President, and tried to use it to make trouble between Moscow and Beijing, has almost certainly taught the Chinese of the need to handle him carefully. He may find that in future meetings they are not quite so polite.