Vladimir Putin was all smiles in Beijing today, as he negotiated deals with Wen Jiabao over energy, high-speed trains and so on.
Some Russians have been talking up the trip. “Political ties are very good, probably the best since China’s communist revolution in 1949,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, the editor of Moscow-based Russia in Global Affairs magazine, to Bloomberg.
“There’s never been such closeness in position on major international issues, and there are no more territorial disputes," he added.
However, in Beijing, the word on the street is that relations are still frosty. Russia’s decision to arrest 150 Chinese traders at Cherkizovsky market in June went down very badly in China.
The Chinese Commerce ministry demanded that Moscow should: “fully consider the proper disposition of the Chinese merchants and their goods, protect the legitimate rights and interests of Chinese enterprises and business people, and especially guarantee the safety of these persons and their property.”
(On a side note, I’m not sure what justification the Chinese have for being peeved at the sudden arrest of their citizens, Cherkizovsky was closed down at almost the exact moment that Stern Hu, the Rio Tinto employee, was thrown into jail.)
Trade between the two countries has been suffering badly. In the first eight months of the year, there was a 36.2pc drop to $24 billion, according to Chinese customs data. The bulk of that came in falling Chinese exports – a 49.4pc dip.
There is, however, a key litmus test to see how close Sino-soviet comradeship is. China is contemplating signing an enormous deal for Russian gas. If it comes off, China will be Gazprom’s biggest customer and the Russian giant would have the cash to develop pipelines and the Kovykta field in eastern Siberia.
The deal first cropped up in 2006, but the two sides couldn’t fix a price. Whether Beijing seals a deal now with Gazprom, or continues along its current path of reaching out to central Asian states such as Turkmenistan, will be the key moment to look out for.