By Habibe Ozdal
Vladimir Putin visits China on Tuesday in his first foreign trip since revealing plans to reclaim Russia’s presidency, addressing a challenging relationship with a giant neighbor whose growth is both an opportunity and a potential threat for Moscow. Indeed the balances are changing in Chinese-Russian relations that were brought closer by the unilateral interventions of the U.S. in the international arena. The Moscow-Beijing alliance stressed by some is transforming into a naive discourse.
Chinese-Russian relations have been fluctuating since the end of the Cold War. Since the middle of the 1990s, bilateral relations have been deeply affected by NATO’s Kosovo intervention, the Iraq War, the September 11 attacks, and color revolutions that took place in former Soviet territories. After the Kosovo intervention handled by NATO under U.S. leadership, Russia and China became concerned about the unilateral operations of the U.S. The two countries that were brought closer by the resulting picture found the lowest common denominator among their concernsto be the danger of rising Islamic fundamentalism in Central Asia.
While Moscow and Beijing are coming together to balance the U.S., sometimes Russia’s close relations with the U.S. was followed with concern by China. That’s why the determinant in Chinese-Russian relations was not the internal dynamics but the external ones.
Cooperation and Potential Areas of Conflict
Discourse in a multipolar world is the ideal depiction of the international system for Russia and China, at least for now. In domestic policy, both countries strongly oppose any interventions in their political systems. According to this principle, Russia and China support their governments’ struggle against separatist movements. While Russia supports China in the issues of Taiwan and Xinjiang, China has Russia’s back in its struggle against Chechnya. In this context, in Moscow and Beijing, decision makers are sincerely sharing the philosophy of “sovereignty of state” and acting in this axis in the international arena. The main platform of this cooperation takes place in the UN Security Council.
Economic relations developed by the two giants are the most important point in terms of global political economy. Russia’s cooperation with its biggest ally, China, is brought to light especially in the development of the Siberia region. This situation was brought about by treaties signed during Putin’s visit to China in 2009. On the other hand, some components of the Chinese economy are wholly (for instance military equipment) or partly (oil, timber, raw materials) supplied by Russia.
The key component of Russian-Chinese relations is energy. While Russia is the biggest oil producer, China is not only the fastest-growing economy, but also has a 10% share in global energy consumption, making it the biggest energy consumer in the world. Russia met 7.8% of this need of China in 2009, and 6.3% in 2008. The amount in question is estimated to increase with the Eastern Siberia-Pacific Ocean pipeline project. With the entering into service of the Skovorodino-Daqing branch of the Eastern Siberia-Pacific Ocean pipeline that was opened on January 1, 2011, 300,000 barrels of oil are carried per day.
Power Shift in Russia-China Relations
Mutual dependence between the two countries incorporates fault lines ready to shatter at any moment. Chief among these is the asymmetric structure of bilateral trade relations. The most noticeable issue in the current trade relations between the two countries is the decline in arms sales by Russia to China. China’s strategy for its defense industry has forced Russian officials to make an important choice. Recently, Russia preferred not to sell sophisticated weapons systems such as long-range ballistic missiles, strategic bombs, and air or missile defense systems, in order to avoid disrupting the balance in the region. By turning to develop its own defense industry, China does not need Soviet-era weapons provided by Moscow as before. In the period before 2007, Russia was China’s prominent supplier of the energy, arms, and other industrial products. We don’t have official numbers but according to some various sources, between the years of 1992 and 2006, the total cost of China’s arms imports from Russia was $26 billion. At the same time, Russia’s total arms exportswere worth about $58 billion. Since 2007, China’s decision to reduce the purchasing of weapons systems and other technology products has transformed the balance in trade relations between the two countries in favor of China. The bilateral defense relationship is evolving away from the constituent structure of the post-Cold War era toward being a factor that disturbs the commercial balance.
Key products Russia exported to China are raw materials such as oil and timber. Oil constitutes half of Russia’s exports to China. In this case, external shocks deeply affect the balance of Russia’s trade with China. For example in 2008, because of a huge decline in the prices of raw materials, Russia had a $13.5 billiondeficit in its foreign trade with China.
Naming the Relationship: Partnership or Competition
In the post-Cold War era, with the effect of expanded relations between Russia and China, Beijing and Moscow, maintaining parallel attitudes in many global and regional issues, had the opportunity to influence international security issues. On these developments, theses that saw the two countries as an alternative pole and potential allies were frequently produced. Well, how likely is such a partnership? It’s difficult to say that there is coordination between the two countries’ foreign policy decisions, despite them sharing a common denominator of interests in foreign policy. In addition, Russia and China are moving along a delicate balance in Central Asia. On the other hand, the changing nature of economic relations between the two countries prognosticates competition in bilateral relations, not cooperation. Parallel to the changing balance of power in Russia-China relations, the shape of their bilateral relations will have global and regional importance. In the words of Alexei Bogaturov from the Russian Academy of Sciences, “for Russia, China is a sea of potential and an ocean of fears.”
At this point, whoever considers a Russia-China partnership possible in the future is missing a significant point; the changing structure of power among actors in bilateral relations.
USAK Center for Eurasian Studies