Presidents Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping met on the sidelines of the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok on the Sino-Russian border Tuesday. Simultaneously Russia and China kicked off unprecedented joint military exercises as part of Russia’s annual Vostok war games, which will run for a week and includes thousands of Chinese People’s Liberation Army troops, and some 300,000 Russian personnel. 

President Putin has of late sought closer relations with China, which Russia shares a massive 4,200km border with, amidst both countries experiencing deep tensions with the West, including US sanctions against Moscow and a growing trade war between China and Washington.

It’s the third time this year the two leaders have met and the fact that it was planned at the inauguration of Vostok 2018 no doubt sent a strong signal to Washington that the two countries’ usually chilly relations are warming fast in the face of a common increased threat from the West. 

According to China’s state broadcaster CCTV, Xi affirmed to Putin that“Both nations have to oppose unilateralism and trade protectionism, and build a new type of international relations and shared human destiny.”

The two leaders toast improved relations at the Eastern Economic Forum on Tuesday. 

Putin in return reportedly pledged mutual good faith commitment to boosting ties, noting the wide range of mutual national interests: “We have a relationship of trust in the sphere of politics, security and defense,” he said. “We know that you [Xi] personally pay great attention to the development of Russian-Chinese relations.”

The two also discussed areas of potential greater cooperation in science and technology, counterterrorism, as well as China’s ambitious “Belt and Road Initiative”. The two acknowledged their prior one-on-one summits as “fruitful” the last being their July Johannesburg meeting, and before that a June meeting in Beijing.  

And significantly, simultaneous to the Putin-Xi meeting, The Hindu reports, it’s more than the Vostok games where on the ground improvement of ties are already happening

On Tuesday, Russia-China Investment Fund (RCIF) — a joint undertaking of the state-owned China Investment Corporation and Russian sovereign wealth fund — announced that a group of of Russian and Chinese businesses are considering 73 joint investment projects, with a cumulative value of more than $100 billion. CNBC reported that cooperation between China and Russia is an issue of global importance as both nations try to achieve economic stability despite the pain of U.S. penalties — sanctions against Russia and an escalating tariff war against China.

Ahead of Tuesday’s meeting China’s ambassador to Russia, Li Hui, described Sino-Russian relations as being “at their best in history” in statements made on Sunday. President Xi’s attendance at the annual economic forum constitutes the first ever by a Chinese leader.

Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping make pancakes during a visit to the Far East Street exhibition on the sidelines of the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, Russia. Image source: Reuters

And concerning China’s sending some 3,200 PLA elite forces troops, along with 30 fix-wing aircraft and helicopters to deploy during the exercise, Carnegie Moscow Center analyst, Alexander Gubuev, summarized why the West will closely monitor the games with increased alarm, per a Financial Times report:

This is pretty huge. These major exercises are designed to simulate responses to aggression from external enemies. For decades, China has been considered one of those potential threats. Thus, to invite them to participate suggests that now they are seen as allies against other aggressors.”

The exercises, which are annual and held in different regions which Moscow considers among four strategic military sectors, are designed to simulate an attack on a foreign power. 

“Both Beijing and Moscow are looking to demonstrate that trade wars and sanctions will only push them to develop new alliances,” comments senior analyst Florence Cahill for a risk consultancy group as cited in FT. And explained further, “As long as their prevailing worldview is shaped by an animus towards a US-led international order, co-operation on all levels between Moscow and Beijing will likely be more pronounced than competition between them.”

China’s defense ministry put out a statement Tuesday saying that the country’s participation in Vostok 2018 would enhance the counter-attacking capabilities of its armed forces and reinforce ties with Russia.

The remarks, no doubt, were intended directly for the Trump administration. 

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