Chinese leader Xi Jinping Photo: Reuters
BEIJING: The Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, has selected Moscow as his first foreign visit as president, to be followed immediately by a trip to South Africa for a summit of the group of leading emerging-market countries.
Mr Xi's predecessor, Hu Jintao, also chose Moscow as his first overseas stop after assuming office, but this time, Mr Xi's journey to Russia has a special significance, analysts say, coming as China tries to answer the Obama administration's pivot to Asia. That US policy is viewed with suspicion in Beijing and is broadly interpreted unfavourably by the Chinese government as containment of China.
By going to Russia, Mr Xi will be working to ensure that China's relationship with Moscow, a sometimes prickly affair and one in which the balance of power has dramatically tilted in favour of China, is in good shape before he meets with President Barack Obama later in the year, analysts said.
There have also been indications that Mr Xi and the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, would try to hammer out a long-sought energy deal that would provide China with Russian oil and gas.
"China wants to consolidate its position with Russia before dealing with the United States," said Jin Canrong, associate dean at the School of International Studies at Renmin University. In particular, he said, China will likely look for Russian support in its territorial dispute with Japan, a US ally, over islands in the East China Sea.
Mr Xi is not expected to meet Obama until September when both leaders will attend a summit of the G-20 nations in St. Petersburg, Russia, Chinese officials said. Efforts to arrange a meeting between Mr Xi and Obama before September appear to have made little headway so far, officials in China and Washington said.
The Chinese have not released a precise date for Mr Xi's visit to Moscow, largely because he does not formally become president until the National People's Congress meeting, which opens in Beijing on March 5. Mr Xi now holds the post of leader of the Communist Party, a post he assumed in November.
In Moscow on Tuesday, Mr Putin said he looked forward to the visit of Mr Xi "soon." The Chinese foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, who was in Moscow on Tuesday to prepare for Mr Xi's meeting with Putin, confirmed the planned visit to Moscow.
Chinese state-run media reported this week that Mr Xi would visit Russia on the way to the meeting of the leaders of the so-called BRICS nations in Durban, South Africa, on March 26 and 27. BRICS is the acronym for Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.
At a Chinese Foreign Ministry briefing Wednesday, the spokesman, Hong Lei, repeated Yang's statement that Mr Xi would visit Moscow.
There have been few expectations that Mr Xi and Mr Obama would meet earlier than September, although the men are expected to speak by telephone once Mr Xi assumes the presidency, officials said.
Mr Obama welcomed Mr Xi to the White House in February 2012 when Mr Xi was vice president, and was known to be the next Chinese leader.
Word of Mr Xi's itinerary comes as the new US secretary of state, John Kerry, is starting his first overseas trip this weekend, a nine-country tour of Europe and the Middle East.
Unlike his predecessor, Hillary Rodham Clinton, who departed from tradition and visited Asia first — including China — Mr Kerry is reverting to the more familiar path of secretaries of state visiting allies in Europe and trouble spots in the Middle East.
The protracted wait for a presidential-level meeting between Obama and Mr Xi also comes as tensions between China and the United States escalate over a broad range of issues, including stepped-up accusations by the United States that China's military is responsible for cyberattacks against US companies.
Given the strains in the relationship, there are hazards in delaying a face-to-face meeting, said Bonnie S. Glaser, senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
"In the absence of presidential dialogue, there is risk of intensifying suspicion and potential for the relationship to drift apart," she said. "An early summit would be undoubtedly welcomed by the entire region, which is somewhat anxious about U.S.-Chinese friction."
As tensions have festered between China and the United States, China and Russia have drawn closer on major international issues, even as China's ever strengthening role in Asia and its growing global role have placed Russia in a diminished position.
On issues important to the United States — Syria, Iran and North Korea — China and Russia have displayed common interests that will most likely be on the agenda during Mr Xi's visit to Moscow. And they are also likely to focus on increased cooperation on energy policy.
China's vice premier, Wang Qishan, met twice with the head of Russia's state-owned oil producer Rosneft, Igor Sechin, in Beijing this week, an apparent prelude to the Moscow summit.
The main difference between China and Russia over energy has been the price of gas. In the past, Russia has refused to accommodate China's price demands, arguing it could sell gas to Europe at a better profit than to China.
The New York Times