Russian guided missle cruiser Varyag, the flagship of Russia's Pacific fleet, berths in a port in Shanghai on May 26, 2014, after taking part in a joint military drill with China. China and Russia started joint naval exercises off Shanghai on May 20 as their leaders promised to strengthen relations in the face of international criticism over their territorial disputes. President Xi Jinping launched the drills at a ceremony in a room lined with officers of both navies in white dress uniform, with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin looking on, state broadcaster CCTV showed. CHINA OUT AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read AFP/AFP/Getty Images)
Shared interests: a Russian warship berthed in Shanghai after a joint exercise with China this year

China and Russia have vowed to strengthen bilateral military co-operation and hold joint naval exercises to counter US influence in the Asia-Pacific region as a growing chorus of voices warns of a looming “ new cold war”.

During a visit to Beijing where he met his Chinese counterpart and Premier Li Keqiang, Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu said the two sides “expressed our concern with the US attempts to reinforce its military political influence in the Asia-Pacific region”, Chinese and Russian state media reported.

“Our co-operation in the military spheres has great potential and the Russian side is ready to develop it across the broadest possible spectrum of areas,” Mr Shoigu added. “We see the formation of a collective regional security system as the primary objective of our joint efforts.”

The Russian delegation also drew a parallel between the current pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong and the so-called “colour revolutions” in former Soviet states, including Ukraine, which China and Russia blame on instigation from the US and its allies.

Anatoly Antonov, Russia’s deputy defence minister, even seemed to suggest Moscow would be willing to help Beijing tackle the peaceful protests in Hong Kong.

“We have taken note of the events that recently took place in Hong Kong and the two ministers acknowledged that not a single country can feel insured against colour revolutions,” Mr Antonov said, according to Russian state media. “We believe that Russia and China should work together to oppose this new challenge to our states’ security.”

The two sides agreed to hold joint naval exercises, their fourth in recent years, in the Mediterranean next spring, to be followed by further exercises in the Pacific.

As fighting intensifies in eastern Ukraine and Russia’s neighbours fret over Moscow’s rising belligerence, Beijing has described Sino-Russian relations as the best they have ever been.

The current situation in Europe prompted former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to warn last week that the world was on the brink of a new cold war, a sentiment echoed by Belarusian officials on Tuesday.

Facing the prospect of fresh sanctions from the west, Russian President Vladimir Putin has sought to move closer to China to demonstrate he has economic and strategic options and is not completely isolated on the global stage.

China’s authoritarian leaders have welcomed the overtures as they also make more strident territorial claims in the East and South China Seas and seek to face down smaller neighbours and Japan, their second world war enemy.

But both sides remain wary of getting too close and have trouble overcoming a long history of mutual mistrust and contempt, according to Chinese and western experts who monitor the relationship.

For all the talk of closer military ties and joint exercises, Russia has so far refused to sell its most advanced military technology, including jet engines and fighter aircraft, to China.

Beijing has sought to balance closer ties to Moscow with greater co-operation with the US and its allies, while Mr Putin has sought to boost relations with Tokyo, much to China’s dismay.

Even as the Russian defence minister was meeting his Chinese counterpart Chang Wanquan on Tuesday, a top Chinese Communist party official was visiting Finland, which is on high alert for any sign of Russian encroachment.

At the same time, a top-level delegation from North Korea met Mr Putin in the Kremlin amid speculation the country’s leader Kim Jong Un would make a first overseas visit as leader to Russia, rather than to China, its traditional ally.

Chinese officials say ties between Pyongyang and Beijing have reached an all-time low since Mr Kim took over the hermit kingdom and particularly since he executed his uncle, Jang Song Thaek, who was seen as China’s key contact in the country.

During the defence minister’s visit, Russia’s federal space agency also discussed closer co-operation with China, which is interested in building Russian rocket engines and joining manned space exploration, remote sensing and navigation satellite projects, according to Russian state media.

Sino-Russian postwar relations: from rocky to robust

1950 – Mao Zedong travels to Moscow to sign a Treaty of Friendship, which consists of a $300m loan to help rebuild the newly-born but war-ravaged People’s Republic of China, and a military alliance against Japanese aggression

1960 – After several years of tensions, in part down to divergences in Marxist ideology, relations collapse. This Sino-Soviet split come to be seen as one of the key events in the Cold War

1969 – Tensions flare in an undeclared seven-month-long border conflict that brings the PRC and Soviet Union to the brink of war

1972 – The visit to China by President Richard Nixon results in the first meeting between US and Chinese leaders for 25 years. The revival in political and trade ties moves China closer to the west, and away from Moscow

1980s – After a prolonged freeze, Soviet and Chinese leaders make a series of conciliatory gestures aimed at restoring political relations

1991 – Diplomatic relations between Beijing and Moscow dramatically improve following the collapse of the Soviet Union

1996 - China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan form the foundations of a political, economic and military organisation, later renamed the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation when Uzbekistan joins in 2001

2010 – China and Russia announce they will use their own national currencies for bilateral trade rather than the US dollar. Separately, a 1,000km crude oil pipeline is completed – the first between Russia and China

2014 – Russia‘s Vladimir Putin and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping meet at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Beijing and sign a $400bn gas deal. Weeks later the pair pledge to hold joint naval exercises in the Mediterranean Sea and work towards stronger military co-operation

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