Somewhat belatedly, I am reposting here an article that I had published in the Chinese 东方早报 (The Oriental Morning Post) during Xi Jinping’s visit to Moscow a week or so ago. The article does not seem to have been put online, so I have posted the English text that I submitted below. I currently cannot figure out how to attach a PDF here, so cannot add the tear page, but if you are interested, please drop me a line and I can send it over. Related, I did an interview for Danish radio on the visit, focusing in particular on Central Asia. I am also going to use this opportunity to highlight interviews I did for the Italian AGI and The Atlantic on China in Central Asia. As ever for more on my work in this direction, please have a look at the site I manage with Alex focusing on our project on China in Central Asia.
China and Russia will maintain a pragmatic partnership
There has been a great deal of speculation in the press about the significance of Xi Jinping’s decision to make Russia his first foreign trip as leader of China. The implication of much of the discussion is that China is about to reorient itself to turn Moscow into a priority ally, creating some sort of a new axis in international affairs. The reality is that little is practically changing in this relationship beyond reaffirmation of the fact that both sides see the other as a power with which it suits them to be perceived as being aligned.
The relationship in the past few years has evolved substantially. Discussions about enhancing military cooperation and the prospect of joint technological development projects were highlighted during Defence Minister Shoigu’s visit to Beijing late last year, national energy giants CNPC and Rosneft have signed deals to build refineries near Tianjin and explore similar opportunities in Russia as well as looking at doing a large $25-$30 billion loan for oil deal – the Russian firm is believed to be seeking the loan from the Chinese firm in a repeat of a deal from a few years ago. At a political level, President Putin visited Beijing very soon after his election victory, so in some ways this is reciprocating. And on the international stage, China and Russia broadly find themselves in agreement with regards their postures on issues like Syria or Iran and generally prove willing to support each other’s positions in the United Nations Security Council. They both found the ‘colour revolutions’ of a few years ago alarming, and view the ‘Arab Spring’ in an even darker light. Trouble from rebellious provinces is an issue they both share, and they see western plots inside domestic problems.
But beneath this cordiality there is a tension. In the run-up to President Xi’s visit, much has been made in the Chinese press that some final agreement may be about to come about on the topic of gas pricing, a discussion that has been ongoing between China and Russia for over a decade. Unable to reach an agreement, we have seen a number of high level visits come and go with no conclusion in sight of the deal. This time, we are told, it may actually happen. And the logic may finally be there: China’s growing gas relationship with Turkmenistan means that it is going to be less reliant on finding Russian sources, something that will in turn pressure Russia to come to some agreement to not lose its hand in the discussion with China.
This aside, there is the question of Central Asia more broadly. A region that Russia has traditionally seen as its strategic backyard, but where China is increasingly becoming the more relevant actor. Economically, this is displacing Russian interests, though it remains clear that the Central Asian powers continue to see Russia as the more important security guarantor regionally. The story of the past decade, however, is the money and investment flowing in mostly from Xinjiang rewiring Central Asia so its roads all lead to China. Russia is seen to be pushing back against this through the institution and implementation of the Customs Union that at the moment only encompasses Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia. But this is a still developing project and it is unclear how it will ultimately impact Chinese economic growth in Central Asia.
Looking beyond Central Asia, there is the dilemma of Afghanistan and the tensions between India and Pakistan. This triumvirate of countries is a complicated one with both Moscow and Beijing having very different views. Russia has always supported ally India, while Beijing retains strong ties with Islamabad. A delicate balance that has the result of keeping both India and Pakistan out of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). And on Afghanistan, while there is evidence that China is slowly coming to the realization that more must be done and soon, Russia remains trapped in the shadow of its history in that country and refuses to commit much.
The point is that China and Russia are not an easy pairing. They may concur on a few things, but disagree on others too. But what they do share is a concern about western dominance in international affairs and a feeling that the American approach is not always necessarily the right one. And it is maybe here that we should look for deeper meaning in the Russia-China relationship. It is not so much that they are partners of principle, but they are partners of utility. Each sees the value in having a strong counterpart whom is willing to stand up to the United States and the West. Left alone, they would end up being isolated in international affairs and have to deal with the brunt of international wrath when they stood up for unpopular issues. But united they are able to provide some cover for each other and extend the travel schedule of any western foreign minister seeking to lobby their support for issues at the UNSC or elsewhere.
China and Russia remain partners of convenience. Their tentative gestures towards a real strategic partnership are likely to continue to edge gradually forwards, and mutual support will continue on the international stage, but the reality is that this is never going to be a holistic and firm axis in international affairs. Instead it will remain a utilitarian partnership that will provide each other with a useful ally when facing down against perceived western interventionism.