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New World Order Or Hidden Power Struggle? Assessing Future Of Chinese-Russian Relations – Analysis

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By Reid Standish*

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(RFE/RL) — Amid the spectacle of the start of the Winter Olympics, Chinese President Xi Jinping offered solidarity to his counterpart, President Vladimir Putin, at a meeting in Beijing amid high tensions with the West.

The February 4 visit was their first in-person summit in two years after Xi stopped seeing foreign dignitaries because of the coronavirus pandemic, but it marks a new era in ties between Beijing and Moscow that continue to strengthen politically, economically, and militarily.

In a joint declaration, Putin and Xi heralded their relationship and sought to show a common front against rising Western pressure amid the Kremlin’s showdown with the West over Ukraine.

“The sides oppose further enlargement of NATO and call on the North Atlantic alliance to abandon its ideologized Cold War approaches,” the statement said.

As the Kremlin demands that NATO withdraw from Eastern Europe while massing its forces along the Ukrainian border, Beijing has expressed support for Moscow’s grievances and even joined Russia in trying to block action on Ukraine at the UN Security Council.

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In the face of devastating sanctions threatened by the West after a potential new Russian invasion, Chinese economic and political support would signal a geopolitical shift that could upend American foreign policy and be felt from Europe to Asia.

But beyond the pomp of the Putin-Xi meeting, what lies under the surface of this fast-changing relationship?

RFE/RL asked seven leading experts about where things truly stand today and how they see this relationship progressing in the coming years. How might the dynamic change following the unrest in Kazakhstan and the threat of war in Ukraine? Could economic ties between the two countries forge a new type of partnership? And behind their shared rivalry with the United States, what obstacles could chill their relationship?

Shifting In China’s Favor

Alexander Gabuev, senior fellow, Moscow Carnegie Center

Putin and Xi say that relations are the best they’ve been in history and they’re not wrong.

The relationship has been building and accelerated at a new pace recently. This isn’t an alliance and won’t become one given current trend lines, but the national interests of both countries are being served with this arrangement and things will continue to deepen.

Although, as things get deeper, they are also becoming more asymmetric in China’s favor, from trade to the economy to politics.

A lot of these dynamics will depend on Ukraine. A military conflict there could trigger a new round of more severe Western sanctions against Russia and lead to two consequences for China.

The first is that a large-scale security conflict with Russia will dominate the second half of U.S. President Joe Biden’s presidency and suck up lots of oxygen in decision-making rooms everywhere. That means less time they can spend on China, which is the main foreign policy goal of his administration.

The second is that Russia will have to rely more on China to offset Western sanctions triggered by an invasion into Ukraine. Yes, the Russian economy is more sanctions proof than it was in 2014 and Moscow is worried about becoming too dependent on China, but the country will have to look to China for injections of cash and new projects if it wants its economy to grow.

Trade already hit a record high in 2021, jumping 35 percent year-on-year to $147 billion. The Power of Siberia gas pipeline is up and running and there are already plans for a second pipeline.

If something gets signed during this trip [by Putin to Beijing], it will be focused on the economy and trade.

A Deep Partnership With Limits

Jiayi Zhou, Stanford U.S.-Russia Forum fellow and Stockholm-based researcher

Over the past two decades, the Russian and Chinese approach has been to stay relatively hands off when it comes to each other’s direct problems with the West. I still believe both sides are pragmatic and self-interested enough for this to remain the case, but the overall context has clearly changed.

As it becomes more obvious how irreversible the downturn in relations with the United States and European Union has become, the China-Russia partnership has gone commensurately deeper: marked less by hedging strategies and a purely rhetorical alignment, and more by concrete, substance-based consultation and coordination.

Notably, their now upgraded “comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination” is a singular category in Chinese foreign diplomacy applied only to Russia. Even if Putin and his circle are too realpolitik to be truly beholden to these kinds of labeling exercises, it does show the mutual respect and regard that both sides take seriously.

A key dimension driving the deepened China-Russia partnership are also Xi and Putin themselves. This is not only in reference to their interpersonal relationship, but the very fact of their personalistic authoritarian rule, which has clearly become a matter of irresolvable, structural antagonism with Western countries.

But there are limits to any Chinese-Russian “axis.”

The many parallels currently being drawn between Ukraine and Taiwan aside, any open Chinese support for a Russian military invasion would place Beijing’s long-standing position on state sovereignty into serious question. I don’t see that happening yet and the deepened partnership is still likely to remain relatively hands off in the medium term.

Not So Great Economic Expectations

Vita Spivak, Moscow-based analyst at the consulting firm Control Risks

Despite the strong geopolitical ties between the two countries and their leaders, China-Russia economic cooperation will stay practical.

Putin’s current visit to Beijing is being compared to his May 2014 trip, where he signed a 30-year deal worth $400 billion to deliver gas to China with tensions high over Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and the outbreak of war in eastern Ukraine.

But from an economic perspective, the China-Russia relationship in 2022 looks quite different from the one of 2014.

Moscow’s expectations from Beijing are much lower and more practical than they were in 2014. The Russian leadership is no longer under the impression that Chinese banks and companies will come to their rescue in case another round of Western sanctions is introduced against Russia.

Russia is also seeking to avoid increasing its already considerable economic dependency on China, especially when it comes to strategic energy projects, such as those in the Russian Arctic. Therefore, Moscow is seeking to diversify the number of its investment partners at the expense of China.

Over the last five to six years, Russia’s role as an energy provider to China has also grown considerably and it is now the second-largest supplier of crude oil to China and the third-largest provider of natural gas (pipeline and liquefied natural gas combined). Russian companies are also currently increasing their supplies of high-quality coal to China, which is important given the electricity shock China experienced last year.

Moscow will continue to exploit its growing importance as an energy provider to Beijing, with new Chinese energy deals being a useful signal for Moscow to send to a Europe that is dependent on Russian gas. Moscow is also looking for ways to diversify its exports to China, which are still highly dependent on hydrocarbons.

There is also talk from the Russian leadership about switching to China’s yuan in its financial system instead of using euros or dollars in order to protect against new sanctions. It looks like China’s leadership will not make an exception for Russia in its capital-control system — and the Kremlin appears to be very aware of that.

‘Back-To-Back’ In Search Of A New World Order

Haiyun Ma, associate professor, Frostburg State University, Maryland

Russia and China’s rivalries with the West are bringing the two countries closer than ever.

Putin’s visit to China is primarily about shaping a new world order where Russian and Chinese core interests — whether it be security concerns or territorial aspirations — are respected and can be redefined through mutual support and increasingly coordinated actions in response to the West.

To strengthen their bargaining power and challenge the primacy of the United States, Europe, and Japan, the two countries are focused on the issues that they believe have been used against them in the current world order to curb and weaken them.

For China, this is seen in assertive and ultranationalist policies in Xinjiang [Province], Hong Kong, the South China Sea, and the Taiwan Strait. For Russia, this is about NATO and the orientation of former Soviet countries, with Ukraine being the most notable example.

The exact nature of this dynamic is unfolding in real time, but hints can be seen in the way Chinese officials have defined the relationship. Rhetoric from Beijing often says that China and Russia are supporting each other “back-to-back” defensively in the face of threats, not fighting shoulder to shoulder against the West.

As they prepare for these challenges, Russia and China are minimizing any conflicting positions between them in regions with overlapping investments, interests, and influences such as in Central Asia and the South China Sea.

What Comes After Their Rivalry With The U.S.?

Artyom Lukin, China-Russia relations scholar at the Far Eastern Federal University in Vladivostok

Both China and Russia share the same goal of doing away with America’s primacy in the global order. Until this grand objective is achieved, there are no reasons to worry about the health of Beijing and Moscow’s relationship.

Looking ahead, the questions are what happens once China, with some Russian help, succeeds in dethroning the United States? If China becomes the world’s strongest superpower, how would it treat Russia?

Russia’s economy is already one-tenth that of China’s and the gap continues to widen. Even more worrying than the GDP gap, Russia is getting increasingly behind China in many vital scientific and technological sectors. For example, Russia used to pride itself on its leadership in space, but now Moscow may become a junior partner in a Chinese-led project to set up a lunar base.

If China, as it emerges as a new superpower, acquires imperial hubris and a sense of entitlement akin to the United States, then the China-Russia relationship might eventually get into trouble. Still, I hope the Chinese are smart enough not to repeat American mistakes.

China’s Subtle Long Game With Russia

Jon Yuan Jiang, Chinese-Russian relations analyst at Australia’s Queensland University of Technology

In Chinese diplomatic circles, there is an unspoken view that an economically weak but militarily aggressive Russia suits China the best.

This is partly why China-Russia relations look promising in the short- to medium-term. Not only is Western pressure pushing both countries together, but Russia’s military operations also draw attention away from Beijing.

Russia’s stagnating domestic economy and its sparsely populated Far East also leaves its lengthy border with China relatively secure, from a Chinese perspective. This offers China more strategic space and resources to deal with core issues elsewhere, such as its own declining population at home, global competition with the United States, and territorial claims over the South China Sea and Taiwan.

There are definitely power struggles between China and Russia, but assertive military moves from Moscow also keep the relationship with Beijing from becoming too unbalanced.

A good example of this is Russia’s recent intervention into Kazakhstan through the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). The Russian move helped stabilize the situation in the country, which was also Beijing’s main concern. Despite China sometimes competing with Russia in Central Asia, Beijing deferred to the Kremlin’s military capabilities and let its interests take precedence.

Friction Can Stay Under The Surface For Only So Long

Theresa Fallon, director, Center for Russia Europe Asia Studies, Brussels

The prospect of a joint Chinese-Russian front is a strategic planner’s nightmare, which is why it is in both Beijing’s and the Kremlin’s interest to highlight that they have the best relations in over 300 years.

For now, the common goal to push back against the United States has kept a firm lid on their relationship, but underneath frictions are brewing.

While Putin and Xi are eager to showcase their warm ties and how their countries are growing closer — with Russia’s president even toasting the Chinese leader on his birthday in 2019 while wearing matching outfits — the optics mask a deep distrust that isn’t going away.

In June 2020, a retired Russian scientist was detained on charges of passing Russian submarine-detection technology secrets to China, and suspicion of Chinese espionage within Russia’s defense industry runs deep and has a storied history.

Elsewhere, China and Russia’s populations have found themselves at odds, especially outside of each country’s political center.

Chinese businesses and economic expansion are eyed with caution across Russia’s regions. Meanwhile, nationalistic outbursts, such as calls from Chinese Weibo users to reclaim parts of Russia’s Far East, feed into an unease and misunderstanding that still exists on both sides of the border that isn’t shown in either country’s state-media.

Beijing maintains a longer view for the future, adopting a tactical strategy where it’s better to have Russia on its side and has shown that it’s willing to adapt and bide its time in the short- and medium-term.

China still does not recognize Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine but did elect to reorient its flagship foreign policy project, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), to better integrate with Russia and focus less on Ukraine. Showing a sensitivity to strategy but an unwillingness to compromise on its interests.

Moscow’s actions in Ukraine may be seen by Beijing as a useful distraction but, at the same time, the Kremlin’s actions must unnerve China, since Putin’s moves could disrupt the BRI.

An estimated 85 percent of Chinese rail traffic to Europe transits through Belarus, which could be squeezed by renewed hostilities in the region. Ukraine, meanwhile, was once envisioned as one of the anchors of the BRI and Beijing still has its sights on the country, with China being its largest trading partner.

China knows it needs to work with Russia, but that doesn’t mean that Beijing has forgotten about the long-term frictions that lay ahead in its relationship with Moscow. Putin would be smart to also keep an eye on these future tensions, regardless of the red carpet welcome he’s currently receiving in China.

  • Reid Standish is a correspondent for RFE/RL focused on China in Eurasia. He previously worked for Foreign Policy magazine in Washington and Moscow and has reported across Europe and Central Asia for The Atlantic, The Washington Post, and Politico Europe.

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RFE/RL journalists report the news in 21 countries where a free press is banned by the government or not fully established.

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