Li will be the second top Chinese official visiting Moscow in April. President Vladimir Putin has received the First Vice-Premier of China Zhang Gaoli (who is also a member of the Standing Committee of the Politburo of Chinese Communist Party) at the Kremlin on April 13, which was, incidentally, the day after the visit by the US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to Moscow.
Zhang is one of the economic czars in the Chinese system and his talks with Russian officials focused on Chinese investments in Russia and energy cooperation. But part of his brief was to prepare for Putin's "working visit" to Beijing in the context of the One Belt One Road summit on May 14-15, which will be inaugurated by President Xi Jinping.
Li's forthcoming talks in the Kremlin will be of exceptional importance. It is only with Russia that Chinese Communist Party Central Committee's apex organ (which comes directly under party General Secretary Xi) has such an institutional arrangement of annual consultations - although Russia is not a communist country. Li is a key aide to Xi and his counterpart Vaino reports directly to Putin. The symbolism is at once evident. At an operative level, the unique arrangement ensures that the dynamics and verve of the China-Russia relationship unfailingly receives the personal attention of Xi and Putin. In sum, it underscores that the two countries attribute the highest priority to their relationship.
The timing of Li's visit is particularly significant. The Donald Trump administration has been bragging openly last week that a special chemistry has developed between the US president and Xi following their meeting in Florida on April 7-8 and that China is now actively helping the US to handle the North Korea problem. Besides, both Trump and his National Security Advisor HR McMaster have openly boasted that China's abstention in the UN Security Council vote on Syria last Wednesday was due to this wonderful personal chemistry between the two presidents.
Incredibly enough, McMaster virtually went on to boast in a TV interview with ABC on Sunday that Trump has succeeded in creating distance between China and Russia over the Syrian question. McMaster claimed that Russia has been badly isolated in the UN Security Council. (It is a nonsensical claim, as is apparent from the BRICS Joint Communique of April 12 adopted at Visakhapatnam on Syria, which virtually backs the Russian position.)
Conceivably, McMaster is a novice in international diplomacy and his inexperience showed in the ABC interview. But then, he happens to be Trump's NSA and even if he is a bumbling Lt. General and a babe in the woods of world politics, his voice carries authority. McMaster said:
"What we do know is that, in the midst of responding to the mass murder of the Syrian regime, the president (Trump) and the first lady hosted an extraordinarily successful conference, summit, with President Xi and his team. And not only did they establish a very warm relationship, but... they worked together as well in connection with the response to the mass murder on the part of the Assad regime in connection with the U.N. vote. I think President Xi was courageous in distancing himself from the Russians, isolating really the Russians and the Bolivians... And I think the world saw that, and they (Xi) saw, well, what club do you want to be in? The Russian-Bolivian club? Or the — in the club with the United States, working together on our mutual interests and the interests of peace, security."McMaster probably thought, out of sheer naivety, that with these harsh words, he'd deal a knockout punch to the Russians. No matter Trump's game plan to drive a wedge between China and Russia by exploiting Xi's interest in a 'new type of major country relations' with US, it is preposterous that Beijing will allow any erosion to the Sino-Russian entente. The point is, for both China and Russia, their number one priority in world politics will be to push back at US hegemony and there is no daylight possible here between them for a foreseeable future. Simply put, the relationship has created 'strategic depth' for both countries to safeguard their core interests, while also navigating specific concerns at any given point vis-a-vis the United States.
We will never know whether Li's is a routine visit or has been conceived against the backdrop of the Trump administration's mischief to create misunderstandings in the Russian-Chinese ties. At any rate, Beijing seems to be going the extra league to underscore the highest priority that it attaches to the preservation of China's mutual trust with Russia. Li's trip to Moscow and his consultations at the Kremlin can only make Trump and McMaster look somewhat like two country bumpkins who lost their way in the metropolis.