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Civil China-hosted summit contrasts with G7 turmoil

Chinese politics & policy

Civil China-hosted summit contrasts with G7 turmoil

Xi courts Putin and Iran while warning against unilateralism and protectionism

Authoritarians united: Xi Jinping of China (centre) with Vladimir Putin of Russia (left) and Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in Qingdao © EPA

China’s President Xi Jinping issued a warning against “unilateralism, trade protectionism and backlash against globalisation” at a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin and other authoritarian leaders, in contrast to the G7 meeting in Canada.

After G7 leaders clashed at Charlevoix, the meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, a 17-year-old collective security group chaired by China for the past year, proceeded smoothly on Sunday.

Chinese media portrayed the SCO summit as emphasising the gap in global leadership that has opened between the US under President Donald Trump and China under Mr Xi, who used every opportunity to skewer Washington over mounting trade tensions and erratic unilateral behaviour.

Mr Xi said repeatedly that SCO members agreed to abide by World Trade Organization rules and — with Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani in the room as an observer — promised efforts to salvage the Iran nuclear deal, from which the US withdrew earlier this year.

But attention was mainly focused on the backslapping camaraderie between Mr Xi and Mr Putin, who arrived on Friday and whose warming personal relationship with Mr Xi has tracked the notable improvement of Russian-Chinese relations. 

The Chinese leader has prompted some comparisons to his Russian counterpart for his cult-of-personality governing style, his fondness for military uniforms and his decision to do away with a constitutional 10-year, two-term limit on his rule. 

Kevin Carrico, a lecturer on China at Macquarie University in Australia, said Mr Xi had self-consciously copied Mr Putin’s style. “Putin has provided a model of a politically dominant leader who still has popular resonance with the people,” he said. China’s media, meanwhile, has taken pains to portray Putin’s visit, his 19th trip to China since taking power, as a “brotherly” affair.

“In the Chinese state media, this is being presented less like a relationship between two countries and more like a friendship between two buddies,” as Mr Carrico put it. 

Mr Putin, comfortably in his fourth term as president, was visibly relaxed as he was squired around by the Chinese leader and presented with a friendship medal, described by China’s media as the only such award given to a foreign leader.

“Every time I take a train I get a romantic feeling,” said Mr Putin as they hurtled from Beijing to Tianjin at 300km/h on a high-speed train. At the welcome ceremony in Beijing, Mr Xi described Mr Putin as “my best, most intimate friend”.

Experts noted that Mr Xi, showing Mr Putin how to make a local dumpling, even used the more familiar first-person plural pronoun of “zanmen” (“we buddies”) rather than the more formal “women” (“we”) — something he has not done with other world leaders. 

Alexander Gabuev, a specialist on Chinese Russian relations at the Carnegie Centre in Moscow, said “the amount of time Xi spent with Putin this trip was meant to show that this was very special treatment”.

Russia and China form the backbone of the SCO, which has four central Asian states and India and Pakistan as members, and despite historical animosity between Moscow and Beijing now appear to want to jointly resolve security issues in Eurasia without the US. 

At the top of the agenda was an effort to keep the Iran nuclear deal alive following the US pullout earlier this year. Iran’s President Rouhani attended the meeting as an observer, telling the audience of assembled leaders he was seeking “practical guarantees on the implementation of all the provisions of the nuclear deal” from other signatories or UN member states and specifically mentioning Russia and China.

Mr Xi answered Mr Rouhani, saying that “China is willing to work with Russia and other countries” to preserve the deal, which relaxed sanctions on Iran in exchange for a commitment to end its nuclear weapons programme.

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