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China-Russia ties ‘high on Beijing’s foreign policy agenda’ for 2021

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Ties with Russia will be a top diplomatic focus in 2021, according to China’s foreign minister. Photo: Reuters

Resetting relations with the US and strengthening strategic ties with Russia will be among the top priorities for China next year, Foreign Minister Wang Yi said on Friday as he outlined the country’s diplomatic agenda for 2021.

Observers said the focus on ties with Russia could reflect concerns in Beijing about its worsening feud with the West.

Addressing diplomats and academics at an annual seminar hosted by the China Institute of International Studies at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing, Wang said China’s top foreign policy priority would be to support the world’s post-pandemic economic recovery.

But in calling for “a new type of international relations”, he also focused on the need to deepen relations with Russia – more so than with Europe or the United States.

“We must deepen China-Russia comprehensive strategic cooperation ... in various areas and at different levels ... so as to build a Sino-Russian pillar for world peace and security and global strategic stability,” Wang said, according to a foreign ministry statement.

He also called for greater strategic trust between China and the European Union by “upholding multilateralism, adhering to free trade and addressing climate change”.

More work needed to be done with the US to “rebuild a strategic framework for healthy and stable development in bilateral relations”. “The two sides need to work together and meet each other halfway,” Wang added.

The assessment comes with just over a month to go until the inauguration of US president-elect Joe Biden and as both countries are locked in hostility with no end in sight.

On Thursday, China announced new travel restrictions on US diplomats to Hong Kong and Macau in retaliation for US sanctions against 14 members of China’s top legislature over the introduction of Beijing’s national security law in Hong Kong.

Senior Chinese diplomats, including Wang, have repeatedly urged Beijing and Washington to restart dialogue before Biden’s inauguration, but even if that happens, some observers say China could face even more complex challenges from the US under the new administration. That is because Biden is expected to depart from his predecessor and embrace traditional allies such as Europe and Japan, to counter China.

Meanwhile, there have been signs that European Union, which is in protracted talks with Beijing over an investment agreement, is hardening its position on China.

On Friday, The Wall Street Journal reported that the annual China-EU CEO and Former Senior Officials Dialogue, a closed-door event involving around 40 business executives, top officials and academics from Europe and China, was cancelled after organisers rejected Chinese demands to exclude certain participants.

Pang Zhongying, an international relations specialist at Ocean University of China, said that while relations with the US remained a top priority, Beijing may be looking for stronger ties with Russia to counter the possible revitalisation of the transatlantic partnership against China.

“Compared with the downward spiral of Sino-US relations, China’s relationship with Russia is very stable and sustainable,” Pang said.

“But if China made relations with Russia a higher priority than those with the US and Europe, it may indicate that Beijing could be less optimistic about the prospect of improved relationships with the US and Europe.”