Russian president Vladimir “Yes, I’m Back Again” Putin arrived in Beijing today as part of what appears to be a “Who Needs the West?” foreign tour. This is Putin’s first Asian trip since returning for his third presidential term last month. His three days in China will be spent strengthening Sino-Russian economic ties and solidifying the two powers’ common positions on Syria, Iran and other nettlesome international hotspots.
After decades of antagonism and persistent territorial disputes along their 4,300 km (2,670 mile) border, Moscow and Beijing have long since put aside their Soviet-era rivalries and have been forging a strategic alliance they see as a counterweight to the US-EU partnership in the West.
Cover for Damascus
From a practical standpoint, this visit will give Putin and the Chinese leadership a chance for a powwow on how to deal with growing western pressure for international action on Syria, as the country slips from democratic uprising to emerging civil war. Both countries have used their position as permanent members of the United Nations Security Council to block efforts to impose sanctions on the government of Bashar al-Assad for an increasingly brutal and bloody campaign to crush opposition to his autocratic rule.
Beijing and Moscow will probably reinforce each other's position that the violence in Syria must be resolved by Syrians, without outside interference. Meanwhile, Russia, long Syria's patron, continues to supply arms to Assad’s army.
Iran will also be on the agenda. The largely futile talks two weeks ago in Baghdad over the extent and purpose of the Islamic Republic’s nuclear programme will continue later this month in Moscow. Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will be in Beijing on Thursday for a Central Asian security summit, where he’s scheduled to meet both Chinese and Russian officials. Both countries have been critical of western economic sanctions, which are meant to pressure Iran into dropping what the west believes is a clandestine nuclear weapons programme.
As much as anything, Putin’s trip to Beijing gives Russia and China a chance to present themselves as a power-bloc eager to counter the influence of the West. An official commentary in the China Daily, the voice of the Chinese Communist Party, describes the Russian president’s visit as part of a growing partnership in which “…the two giant neighbours, carrying out ever-deepening co-operation, have become active agents of tilting balance toward a multipolar world and expediting the rise of new political and economic orders."
It goes on: "Both countries oppose the cold-war style alliance and seek to build a new-style partnership based on equality and mutual respect.”
Russia Today republished a speech by Putin, previously carried in a major Chinese newspaper, in which he pointedly warned that: "It is not possible to set the global agenda today behind Russia’s and China’s backs and without taking their interests into account. Such is the geopolitical reality of the 21st century."
After several days of high-level back-patting and self-reinforcement, the prospects for any short-term softening of Chinese or Russian positions on Syria, Iran, democratic freedoms or other issues of concern to the west are not cheery.
Read more: The BBC's Beijing correspondent, Damian Grammaticas, analyses the upcoming "generational shift" in Chinese leadership.