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Is the Sino–Russian Relationship in Trouble? Putin’s Possible Visit to China in October Raises Questions

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Russian President Vladimir Putin could visit China after Beijing assigned disputed territories to China in its new map, casting doubt on the seemingly strong Sino–Russian relationship.

President Putin has been invited to visit China and is expected to do so in October, when the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) hosts the Belt and Road Forum, his foreign policy adviser Yuri Ushakov said on July 25, Russian state media outlet Tass reported.

However, at the regular meeting of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Aug. 30, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin did not confirm whether President Putin would visit in October, but said China was in communication with its partners about the Belt and Road Forum and would release relevant information in due course.

On Sept. 1, Putin again stated that he expected to meet with Chinese leader Xi Jinping soon. According to Russian news agency Interfax, President Putin said that he would meet the Chinese leader and there would be some activities between the two sides soon.

“He [Mr. Xi] called me a friend, and I’m happy to call him a friend, because he’s a person who has made a lot of contributions to the development of Russia–China relations,” President Putin said.

On Aug. 28, before the CCP confirmed President Putin’s visit to China, China’s Ministry of Natural Resources unveiled its 2023 version of its “standard map.” The map includes a number of disputed areas, including Taiwan, the South China Sea islands, two areas between China and India, and the Heixiazi Island between the Russian and Chinese borders.

Countries concerned immediately protested after the publication of the map. Moscow, however, did not say anything.
After three days of silence, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova denied on Aug. 31 that the CCP was involved in annexing Russian territory.

“China and Russia maintain the same position, which is that the border issue between the two countries has long been resolved,” she said.

An Aug. 31 op-ed in the Washington Examiner pointed out that Moscow, which is usually outraged by such territorial disputes, is taking a very different approach this time, and this public capitulation to the CCP is a sign of weakness.

“Putin presents his relationship with Xi Jinping as a ‘no limits partnership’ of equals who have shared interests and face common threats. But the actual reality, as underlined here, is that China views Russia as its deputy, a subordinate partner that essentially can be bought off to support Beijing’s international agenda,” reads the op-ed.

Heixiazi Island, also known as Bolshoi Ussuriysky Island, located in the easternmost part of China, is the earliest place in China to see the sun. The island is a delta washed by the main streams of the Heilong and Ussuri rivers, covering an area of about 335 square kilometers. “Heixiazi” means “bear” in northeastern Chinese. It is said that there are bears in the vicinity of the island, hence the name.

Heixiazi Island has been under Chinese jurisdiction since the Tang Dynasty (AD 618–907). However, in the late Qing Dynasty (after 1860), as China’s power weakened, the Russians took over China’s northeastern region through a series of unequal treaties. The confluence of the Heilong River and the Ussuri River therefore became the border between the two countries.

In 1929, Soviet troops occupied Heixiazi Island, even though it was not covered by the border treaty. After that, the island was occupied by the Soviet Union, and became a pending case in Sino–Soviet relations.

After the CCP grabbed power in China, it also claimed the sovereignty of Heixiazi Island. In China’s then-published administrative divisions, the island was under the jurisdiction of Fuyuan County, Heilongjiang Province.

However, after the former CCP leader Jiang Zemin came to power, he signed the 1991 Sino–Soviet Border Agreement with the Soviet Union and the Protocol on the Narrative Description of the Eastern and Western Sections of the Sino–Russian Boundary Line with the Russian Federation, respectively, fully recognizing a series of unequal treaties between the Qing government and the Russian Federation.

In 2001, Mr. Jiang and then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin decided to divide Heixiazi Island equally. Since then, Mr. Jiang completely abandoned the claim to the eastern half of the island. According to the Supplementary Agreement on the Eastern Section of the Sino–Russian Border, signed in Beijing in 2004, about half of Heixiazi Island was transferred to the Russian side. In 2008, China and Russia formally inaugurated boundary markers on the island.

Russia has been isolated internationally since its invasion of Ukraine in 2022. Beijing, however, has been supporting Moscow, explicitly or implicitly, to counter the United States.

From March 20 to 22, Mr. Xi paid a state visit to Russia, during which the two regimes made a joint declaration to establish a “comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership for the new era.”

On the other hand, whether President Putin actually trusts Mr. Xi also remains a question.

On June 24, after the coup attempt by the Wagner’s Group, President Putin called six heads of state from Belarus, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkey, Qatar, and Iran in the following two days to inform them of the situation in Russia, but there was no report on President Putin’s contact with Mr. Xi.

In an op-ed for the Chinese Epoch Times, political commentator Wang Youqun pointed out that President Putin did not treat Mr. Xi as his “best friend.”

“Putin’s relationship with Xi Jinping is one of utilization (using him when it is advantageous to do so),” he wrote. “Xi Jinping has also been a cold shoulder to Putin. In the face of the most serious crisis in Putin’s 24 years in power, Xi Jinping has not said anything about it.”

Wang He, a China expert, said that after the collapse of the former Soviet Union, Russia has treated Central Asia as its backyard.

“The CCP has been engaged in infiltration but has not yet dared to openly challenge Russia’s influence in Central Asia, because until 2022, Russia has been very strong in the region, but Russia’s sphere of influence can no longer be preserved now,” he told The Epoch Times.

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