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Russia and China couldn't stop boasting about their "unbreakable friendship" ahead of Vladimir Putin's summit with US President Joe Biden this week.
Relations between Moscow and Beijing are at an "unprecedentedly high level," Russian leader Putin told NBC in an interview aired Monday, stressing he does not consider China a threat. "China is a friendly nation. It has not declared us an enemy, as the United States has done," he said.
On Tuesday, Beijing returned the praise in kind, declaring the "sky is the limit" for bilateral cooperation. "China and Russia are united like a mountain, and our friendship is unbreakable," foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian told a news briefing.
In recent years, the two countries have gravitated closer toward each other amid their deteriorating relations with the West. For Russia, a pivot to the world's second largest economy was a natural solution to sanctions over its annexation of Crimea and incursions into eastern Ukraine in 2014. And Beijing was more than happy to embrace closer ties with its northern neighbor as tensions escalated in almost every aspect of its relations with the US.
Economics has been at the center of their strategic partnership. Bilateral trade passed $100 billion in 2018, and the goal is to double it by 2024. The two countries have also deepened energy cooperation, including a $400 billion deal to transport natural gas from Russia and multiple joint nuclear power plant projects in China.
Moscow is also Beijing's largest arms supplier, providing 70% of China's arms imports between 2014 and 2018.
On the diplomatic front, Beijing and Moscow have often sided with each other at the United Nations Security Council, countering the US and its allies on issues such as Syria while rejecting Western criticism over human rights violations.
But their tactical alliance has taken on more urgency since Biden came into office with a pledge to assert US leadership on the world stage. Under Biden, Washington has repeatedly singled out Russia and China as the biggest threats to the rules-based international order, as it rallies allies to unite in an apparent ideological battle between democracy and autocracy.
Over the past few days, discussions on how to counter the authoritarian actions of Russia and China were featured prominently in both the Group of Seven (G7) summit in England and the NATO meeting in Brussels.
In response, Moscow and Beijing have presented a strong united front against the criticism, as well as what they say are "attempts at destroying" their relationship.
"We have to tell those who try every means to drive a wedge between China and Russia that any attempt to undermine China-Russia relations is doomed to fail," Zhao, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, said on Tuesday.
But despite the show of unity, plenty of potential for friction remains.
Trade relations between the two countries are deeply imbalanced. China is Russia's largest trading partner, while Russia is a far less significant trading partner to China. The majority of Russia's exports to China comprise of natural resources and raw materials, in exchange for imports of manufactured goods.
There could be geopolitical concerns too. Through its Belt and Road Initiative, China has expanded its economic influence in Central Asia, an area long deemed by Russia as its sphere of influence.
Beyond official relations, the Russian public is growing increasingly wary of Chinese investment in Siberia and the Russian Far East, where Chinese projects have stoked resentment and backlash from locals.
Observers have long seen growing Sino-Russian ties as a partnership of convenience driven by geopolitical and economic interests, after the two powers moved on from their past animosity. In the late 1950s, relations between Moscow and Beijing became strained, and were later characterized by deep mistrust, ideological disputes and border conflicts.
And now, in the absence of shared fundamental values, common ideologies and a formal military alliance, it remains to be seen just how deep and lasting their ties will be.
- A total of 28 Chinese military planes flew into Taiwan's Air Defense Identification Zones (ADIZ) Tuesday -- the largest incursion since the self-ruled island began regularly reporting such actions last year.
- An entire crew of workers at a fast food restaurant in Pakistan were allegedly detained on the weekend after refusing police officers' demands for free burgers.
- In Japan, some volunteers for the Tokyo Olympics are anxious about the risk of catching Covid-19, amid uncertainty over whether they will get vaccinated before the games.
Photo of the Day
Setting up a home in space: China will send three astronauts into orbit on Thursday in its first crewed mission in nearly five years. The three men, aged between 45 and 56, will live for three months on the core module of the country's as yet completed space station. While aboard the space station, called Tiangong or Heavenly Palace, the men will install equipment and carry out a series of technical tests.
A spending slump might be weighing on China's recovery
A coronavirus flare-up in southern China and economic uncertainty among consumers may be complicating the country's recovery efforts.
Movie ticket sales during the Duanwu Festival holiday weekend -- known in English as Dragon Boat Festival -- plunged about 40% from the same period in 2019, according to official data. It was the worst box office performance for the holiday since 2015.
And while 89 million people traveled within China's borders during the holiday, or nearly the same as during 2019's pre-virus level, they didn't spend as much as they used to. Official data showed that overall tourist spending was just 75% of that in 2019.
Chinese state media partly attributed the poor box office results to community lockdowns in the hugely populous Guangdong region, imposed to control a coronavirus outbreak that started last month. The outbreak has also snarled other industries, including shipping, since Guangdong is home to several major ports.
There may have also been a few other factors in play. Moviegoers on Chinese social media complained about a lack of Hollywood blockbusters to see over the weekend.
And the overall drop in tourist spending might also be attributed to uncertainty about the economy. A nationwide survey conducted by the People's Bank of China in the first quarter of 2021 showed only 22% of urban residents who responded were willing to spend more. Nearly half of those surveyed wanted to save more.
China has emerged from the pandemic at a faster pace than other major economies, thanks to strong global demand for its goods and a state-led investment boom in infrastructure and real estate projects.
But consumption has recovered at a slower pace than expected. In April, retail sales increased about 18% from a year ago, well below the consensus forecast of 25%. It also slowed from March's 34% increase.
The job market has not fully recovered, either. The economy added about 4.4 million new jobs in the first four months, fewer than the 4.6 million recorded during the same period in 2019.
— By Laura He
Pressure builds for Beijing 2022 boycott
A growing number of Western parliaments are denouncing China's actions in Xinjiang as genocide, further isolating Beijing diplomatically and raising the likelihood of a partial political boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics.
On Tuesday, the Belgian Parliament's Foreign Relations Committee passed a non-binding motion saying Uyghurs were at "serious risk" of genocide as a result of the Chinese government's actions in the far western region of the country. A vote on the resolution is expected in the legislature on July 1.
"Our small country is great, because we dare to save a little humanity," said Samuel Cogolati, a Belgian member of parliament, on his official Twitter.
Belgian lawmakers are the latest Western parliamentarians to debate a motion condemning Beijing's actions in Xinjiang, where human rights experts claim up to 1 million Uyghurs have been detained in a vast system of re-education camps.
In total, five Western parliaments have now passed official non-binding motions using the word genocide in connection with China's Xinjiang policies, including the United Kingdom, Canada and the Netherlands, with Belgium likely to follow. The United States government in January officially designated China's human rights abuses in Xinjiang as genocide.
But the greatest blow might still be yet to come for the Chinese government. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on June 7 he was consulting with America's allies on a "shared approach" to a boycott on the Beijing 2022 Winter Games, in keeping with Biden's push for a united front on action against China.
And pressure for a diplomatic boycott is growing. The Czech Senate endorsed the idea in its declaration of genocide in Xinjiang last week. The US Innovation and Competition Act, which passed the Senate on June 8, included a clause that would make it "the policy of the US" to engage in a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing 2022 Olympics.