On June 7, Putin and Xi made back-to-back speeches at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum. Putin was asked during the conference if he would take sides in the U.S.–China trade war. He answered by citing a Chinese proverb: “When tigers fight in the valley, the smart monkey sits aside and waits to see who wins,” according to The New York Times’ June 7 report on the conference.
The proverb Putin cited derives from an ancient Chinese text on war strategies. It means the third party keeps watching as two strong adversaries fight. When the two are both exhausted, the third party takes advantage.
Hu Ping, a U.S.-based China affairs commentator and honorary editor of the political magazine Beijing Spring, told the Chinese-language Epoch Times on June 10 that Putin’s comment indicates he is unwilling to assist the Chinese regime in teaming up against the United States amid the trade dispute.
Xi visited Russia from June 5 to June 7, amid rising trade tensions with the United States.
Observers noted that through the $20 billion worth of investment deals announced by the two countries, and public statements by Chinese officials, it’s evident that China sought to lean on Russia economically amid souring relations with its biggest trading partner, the United States.
A Russian telecom carrier signed a deal with telecom giant Huawei, while a Russian natural gas producer agreed to provide liquefied natural gas.
On the first day, Xi said Putin was his best friend. On the second day, Putin and Xi took a boat tour around the canals of St. Petersburg, Russia’s major trade gateway, as well as a financial and industrial center.
China’s Ministry of Commerce spokesman Gao Feng said at a June 6 press conference that the two countries hoped to increase bilateral trade, with a goal of “$200 billion trade per year [in the near future].”
Bilateral trade reached a record $108 billion in 2018, 24.5 percent more than in 2017.
Chinese state-run media reported that Russian officials made statements about the “rosy future for trade and technological cooperation between Russia and China,” but they failed to mention Putin’s comments at the economic conference.
Hu commented that the relationship between the two nations is “friendly on the surface but not in the heart.” Russia needs the financial investments and trade from China, while China needs access to Russian military technology, he explained.
In reality, the two countries have a fraught history.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was founded in 1921 with the help of Russian communists. When the CCP first set up its government in 1949, Party leader Mao Zedong decided to open the country’s trade with only the Soviet Union as a gesture of appreciation.
In 1953, Nikita Khrushchev became the leader of the Soviet Union. When Khrushchev initiated overall reforms in 1956 by criticizing his predecessor Joseph Stalin, Mao was angered. After a year-long argument, the relationship between the CCP regime and the Soviet Union broke down in 1957.
In 1968, the Soviet Union tried to occupy Chinese-claimed territory in Siberia. A year later, an armed conflict broke out between the two sides.
It wasn’t until 1988 that Beijing and Moscow resumed diplomacy. However, many Chinese have anti-Russian sentiment due to the territorial dispute.
“The contradictions between the Moscow and Beijing regimes, between Russian and Chinese peoples are big, but the CCP government won’t allow Chinese people to be against Russia publicly because it treats the United States as its ultimate, most powerful rival [and doesn’t want to have another strong rival in Russia],” Hu told The Epoch Times.
He added that the Chinese regime sees the United States as an ideological rival because its democratic and capitalist system is directly opposed to communism.
“The CCP doesn’t want to have any issues with Russia because it wants to fight the U.S.,” Hu said, adding that “the Kremlin knows very well that Beijing is worried about breaking up their relationship.”