At SPIEF 2019 – Who Was The Senior Figure – Putin Or Xi – Or Trump?

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Op/Ed by Chris Devonshire-Ellis

With this years St.Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF) bringing together arguably the second and third most powerful men on the planet, and the future of the Eurasian continent being discussed, what was the comraderie and attitude between the Chinese President Xi and Russian President Putin like? And which of the two could be described as the “Senior Partner”?

The conference was unusual that although there were important issues at stake, and some hard hitting speeches made, on a personal level both men appeared relaxed. Xi Jinping even quipped a joke, when asked by the Moderator “What do you think of the US-China Trade War?” he replied “I hadn’t expected that question. I must look at my notes to see what I have”
which raised a laugh from the audience.

President Putin also followed up later with a gag of his own about the Trade War, saying “When two Tigers fight in the jungle, the wise Monkey stays on the sidelines and sits up a tree.”

Xi Jinping also made an obscure reference about the United States and global trade institutions, stating that “If a fur coat has fleas, you don’t burn the coat” which was less amusing but still a departure from standard CCP rhetoric. Dostoyevsky has also quoted when it came to China’s commitment to the Paris Climate Accord, Xi stating “Beauty will save the world” and waxing lyrical about China’s rivers of jade. It also turned out that President Putin has taken up the piano, and had played and sung for Xi Jinping at a later dinner. Less noticed was the gift of two Pandas that Xi Jinping has given to Russia, and which are now to be seen at Moscow Zoo. Such gifts are rare and are a throw back to the Cold War, when receiving one or two of these animals was akin to the highest honor China could bestow. If a signal was to be given that Presidents Putin and Xi share common interests, that was it, and the ambience between the two men was professionally cordial and warm in public.

A key to the question of who is most senior can be taken from the moderator, and from President Putin himself. The latter in the quote about the wise monkey being a lesser beast than the (Chinese) Tiger, and with the moderator referring to the Russian President as “President Putin” and the Chinese President as “Chairman Xi”. Of the two, Putin is actually the older, by eight months. Neither showed any signs of stepping down any time soon. Donald Trump meanwhile seems to be the odd man out in this triumvirate, aged 72 he is six years older and may not be around by 2021, a scenario Xi and Putin seem quite prepared to wait out. And should Trump win another election, until 2025 as well.

The issue with Donald Trump’s personality, attitude and Presidency is that he is at the core a businessman, and has become successful on bombast and bullying. That can work in the frantic, money obsessed ultra capitalism now deployed as a norm in Washington, however it requires a rather greater depth to be a global leader. It is unlikely we will ever hear Donald Trump quote from any of the Russian classics.

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Finally, a word on Michael Calvey, the American national with extensive business interests in Russia who has been under house arrest in Moscow, accused of stealing millions of dollars from his Russian business partner. Calvey has vehemently denied this. Washington is saying he is innocent and implies it is a ploy to punish the United States for the arrest of Maria Butina, accused of being a Russian spy (quite how Washington would know Calvey’s business dealings as a private citizen is another matter). These things are always difficult to work out, however the Russian President did comment that the Russian law enforcement agencies have presented a “viable case” and he would be on trial in an open and fair manner. If he were not guilty he would be exonerated of all charges. If guilty then an appropriate sentence would be passed. That all sounds fair and good, but there may be another story to this. When asked directly about the Calvey case, President Putin stated “You can read it in the Bible.” “Thou shall not steal, and thou shall not covet another man’s wife.” Those are telling words as President Putin had no need to utter the second commandment. Regardless of whether Calvey stole money or not, it is never a good idea to sleep with your business partners wife. If this was indeed the case, then his demise in Russian business circles should be no surprise. Calvey’s cuckolding of his Russian partner, if true, has merely demonstrated he could not be trusted. We can only hope the sex was worth it. Meanwhile, his Russian career is over. regardless of the outcome.

As for global presence? We can expect to hear a lot more about Chairman Xi in terms of titles over the coming years, as even the United States doesn’t have one of those. Chairman beats the President, every time. Russia recognizes Xi Jinping as the main man, even ahead of Putin, who acknowledges this himself. How President Trump will react to being “trumped” is anyone’s guess, but in Eurasian eyes he is only the third most important person in the room, whose most recent highlight was meeting the Queen. SPIEF was ignored, with Washington declining to send any officials despite being invited.

That aptly illustrates the differences and why the United States is now in third place in terms of making global policies happen.

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Silk Road Briefing is produced by Dezan Shira & Associates. Chris Devonshire-Ellis is the Practice Chairman. The firm provides business intelligence and professional services to foreign businesses investing in China, ASEAN, India and the rest of Asia and has done since 1992. We maintain 28 offices throughout the region. Please contact us at or visit us at


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