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Reflections on the Sino-Russian Relationship

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Whither the relationship between the Russian Federation (RF) and the People’s Republic of China (PRC)? Will the two countries continue on their current strategically ambiguous path? Will their competition in Central Asia lead them to conflict? Will they become full-blooded allies, goose-stepping in unison against the West? One way or the other, it would seem that the direction of Russia-China relations over the next decade or so could be decisive for world peace and stability.

This article looks at how the relationship has evolved since the two countries’ current leaders assumed their positions in 2012 and how it might evolve going forward.

Towards a “Special Relationship” (Xi Jinping in 2013)

When Putin returned to the Russian Presidency in 2012 and Xi Jinping became head of the Communist Party of China that same year, the numbers underlying the bilateral relationship looked formidable. Bilateral trade continued to boom. Prices for Russian energy products were stronger than ever. China had the resources to nance projects in cooperation with Russia that were politically desirable, even if not necessarily economically sound.

A certain symmetry in the political circumstances of the two leaders was also evident. Putin reassumed the Presidency amidst significant protests against the succession scheme he and his predecessor – and successor – had cooked up. Within four months of becoming Communist Party General Secretary, Xi had occupied the other top posts in the Chinese hierarchy, State President and Chairman of the Central Military Commission. Both men would have to prove themselves in what were to become increasingly challenging circumstances. But, assuming they would manage, both leaders could look forward to an extended period of working together, at least a decade, perhaps more.

It soon became apparent that the two Presidents had complementary ideas about how they planned to proceed. Both Putin and Xi set out to reinvigorate the e ort to establish a multipolar world – code for reducing the in uence of the United States and its allies over international a airs and creating more space for their ambitions. As part of this approach, they undertook e orts to enhance their county’s military capacity and project a more muscular foreign policy, exploiting complex issues in their respective ‘near abroad’ regions in an e ort to rally their populations around a nationalist agenda. Both countries seemed poised to use their resources to build on their existing bilateral cooperation in energy provision and infrastructure in Central Asia. With the US withdrawal from Afghanistan already announced for 2014, they could expect to face new tests in Southwest Asia.

Putin and Xi also sought to strengthen political control over independent sources of thinking in the media and civil society, and ensure that the courts knew where justice lay. In China, Xi would launch a colossal anti-corruption campaign. is was ostensibly about restoring discipline and propriety in the party. But, as it worked its way through the system, it became clear that this was just as much about neutralizing political opponents. In Russia, in a tragic, landmark event, Boris Nemtsov, a liberal politician and leading opponent of Putin, was assassinated in 2015, the first murder of a mainstream politician since Stalin’s time.

Of course, the two leaders presided over two very different political systems, one communist, the other post-communist. But while Putin has publically repudiated communism as a viable system of governance, Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet communist party, has even observed that Putin is actually more communist than he was.1

Reality Sets In Within a year of the two leaders’ rise to the top, their agenda started to run into trouble. The série noire began when Russian economy, which under Putin had registered seven percent growth rates since his first becoming Prime Minister in 1999 – with the exception of 2008, when almost everyone’s economy went south. Yet, by 2013, Russian growth limped in at 1.3 percent. e numbers for the first half of 2014 were even less rosy.

This was probably decisive in setting the stage for the annexation of Crimea that year and the subsequent e ort to create a Russia-controlled, or at least pro-Russian, territory in Eastern Ukraine, while blocking Kiev’s ambition to move closer to the European Union. Putin sought to change the domestic conversation in Russia from the economy to a renewed Russian grandeur. If you were to believe the opinion polls (which I don’t), he succeeded.

Russia’s actions in Ukraine, including its widely assumed responsibility for the shooting down of the Malaysian Airlines passenger plane over rebel-held territory in Ukraine’s Donbass, triggered a series of economic sanctions against Russia that remain in place. These are widely considered to have contributed to the further fall of the Russian economy in 2014-15, the plunge of the ruble, and the collapse of Russia’s purchasing power. e other factor, of course, has been the rising reserves of energy products beyond Moscow’s control, as fracking has brought new resources to market, the Saudis have maintained production levels, and the Americans have lifted restrictions on energy exports. At the same time, the EU and Ukraine have moved to cut their energy dependence on Russia.

New energy resources are expected to come to market in 2016 as the sanctions against Iran are lifted and if the peace agreement in Libya takes hold. At the time of writing – January 2016 – the barrel is now at around $30 US, with some analysts predicting a further slide to $20 or even $10. This is having huge implications for the world economy, not the least for Russia, which has relied on revenues from petroleum products to feed roughly fifty percent of its federal budget.2

Ukraine proved to be the first of several foreign policy issues in the Putin-Xi era where the two countries did not see eye- to-eye, even if every effort was made to avoid overt opposition. So, in the United Nations General Assembly vote supporting Ukraine’s territorial integrity and proclaiming invalid the Russia- organized referendum on Crimea’s annexation in spring 2014, China was one of the 58 countries that abstained (100 voted for, 11 against, 24 were absent).

As for Central Asia, despite their interest in stabilizing the region, Russia and China have yet to forge a viable modus vivendi on how they should work together. Beijing has favoured the idea of using the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), in which both it and Russia are members alongside four out of the five erstwhile Soviet Central Asian states, as a critical policy vehicle for sponsoring infrastructure projects in Central Asia and addressing its security challenges. Russia prefers the structures it has evolved in former Soviet space for these tasks, such as the Eurasian Economic Community (a would-be Russian-dominated EU-like structure), re-baptized the Eurasian Economic Union in 2015, and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (a would- be Russian-dominated NATO-like body) established in 1992.

In September 2013, having seen its proposals in the SCO stall, Xi Jinping conducted a 10-day official tour of Central Asia and signed a string of bilateral economic and business deals, even using his visit to Kazakhstan to announce the “Silk Road Economic Belt,” a bold proposal to finance and build roads, rail links, pipelines, and other infrastructure across Central Asia and to create direct routes for Chinese exports to Europe. The following month, Xi proposed a “Maritime Silk Road” focused on South Asia that is to include major investments in portuary infrastructure.3

China has also been guarded about Russia’s foray into the Syrian crisis in the fall of 2015, urging all parties to make a greater negotiating effort and avoiding any overt support for Russia’s intervention there. Similarly, Beijing reacted to Turkey’s shoot-down of the SU-24 in November 2015 with a call for clarification of what actually transpired.4 Xi was clearly not interested in sharing Putin’s rage in response to the incident.

Russia has been similarly reluctant with respect to China’s e orts to work for control over the South China Seas. Russia has close trading and political relations with several states of the region – Vietnam and the Philippines in particular – that are at odds with Beijing on its interpretation of boundaries in their contiguous waters.5 Interestingly, the Americans, at the same time as they have opposed China’s efforts to seek a controlling role in the South China Seas, have made port calls and conducted friendly exercises with their Chinese counterparts.

In 2015, the issue of the health of the Chinese economy came to the fore. After years of chalking up seven percent plus growth rates, and sometimes well above that, the number for this past year is widely estimated to be under seven percent, with some Western analysts contending that it is even less, official Chinese statistics notwithstanding. Who can tell? There is no independent oversight of anything in the Middle Kingdom. Chinese markets at year’s end and at the new year’s beginning have voted with their feet, sending the Chinese stock market – and others around the world – significantly lower.

One way of looking at this is to say that Chinese Communist Party, in power for 66 years, may nd itself in a place close to where the Soviet Communist Party did at 72 when it lost its monopoly of power in the USSR. A er several years of impressive performance growth rates, as of roughly 1974 the Soviet economy went south. Economists contend that this resulted from an objective need to make the transition from extensive to intensive growth. e failure to do so ushered in Gorbachev’s e ort to reform the system while keeping the key institutional fixtures of the Soviet system in place.

President Xi Jinping’s economic reforms may be attempting to do what Gorbachev tried to do before it became too late. Be that as it may, the Chinese economy is definitely losing steam. This has compromised Russia’s effort to pivot to China in response to Western sanctions. For example, the landmark gas agreement Russia and China struck in 2014, celebrated as an example of their new era of partnership, seems under strain as China goes to other providers for better prices. Similarly, plans for a second pipeline to increase shipments to China now appear doubtful.

So, the picture for Sino-Russian relations at the outset of 2016 pales in comparison with the expectations of 2012. But it would be unwise to write off the relationship just yet. The two countries continue to stage joint military exercises, such as those that took place in the Eastern Mediterranean in May 2015 and in the Sea of Japan in August of that same year.6

The two Presidents also attended their respective parades in 2015 marking the seventieth anniversary of their countries’ victories in World War II, while several Western leaders stayed away. They have consulted on the Arctic and declared that they have a common interest in taking advantage of the emerging possibilities of being able to navigate the northern passage for trade, commerce, and whatever else they might find could benefit from its use.7 And, at the most recent SCO summit in September 2015, an event to which Russia’s and China’s other BRICS partners (Brazil, India, South Africa) were invited, an invitation to India and Pakistan to join the SCO was confirmed.8

End of a Dream or Start of a Nightmare?

To return to the questions posed at the outset, my sense is that the unlikeliest scenario is one of conflict between the two countries. To be sure, Russia and China have had their di cult moments through history. is included the Sino- Soviet split, which lasted some three decades and featured a 1969 shooting incident on the Ussuri River, then part of their as yet unregulated border. (This occurred at the same time as China was allowing the USSR to send military materiel to the Viet Cong through their territory – but that is another story.)

In any event, there is no historical animosity in the relationship such as between, say, Azerbaijan and Armenia, or Israel and Palestine. And the dominant expansion patterns of the two countries have traditionally not tended to target one another’s territory. Does that mean conflict between the two powers can forever be excluded? No, but for my money this variant only moves into the realm of possibility if one or the other is overwhelmed by centrifugal tendencies.

Strategic ambiguity, what I have identified as the current paradigm, could well continue for some time. But note that in a state of strategic ambiguity, scenarios are possible that are not at all benign from a Western standpoint. For example, there could be a situation in which Russia or China presumed that a certain action in its near abroad would spark a similar initiative in the other country’s near abroad, creating a chain of circumstances overwhelming the West.

The third possibility mentioned at the outset would have Russia and China marching in coordinated fashion to realize their regional objectives and ready to defy the West in the process. As unlikely as this might seem, there is a modern precedent for such a scenario. In 1939, as France and Germany were negotiating with the Soviet Union in an effort to mount a common front against Germany, Hitler convinced Stalin that he could offer a better deal. The result was an ostensibly secret pact of non- belligerence, whereby they agreed to divide up the territory of six countries. Two years later, Germany and the Soviet Union were at each other’s throats but in the meantime the world was engaged in its second Great War.

It may well be that our current futures will look quite different from those described above. The bottom line is that when authoritarian states start running into economic challenges of the qualitative kind, their default position tends to be to play the foreign policy and military card, even when their hands are less than strong.

For more on how Russia and China can work together internationally, see my World War IV series available on this website.


1. Edward W Daniel Sayani, “Former Soviet Boss Gorbachev Says Putin Is More Communist an He Was,” New American, 10 March 2011, world-news/europe/item/8703- former-soviet-boss-gorbachev-says- putin-is-more-communist-than-he- was. 2. US Energy Information Administration, “Oil and natural gas sales accounted for 68% of Russia’s total export revenues in 2013,” 23 July 2014, todayinenergy/detail.cfm?id=17231. 3. See Moritz Rudolf, “China’s ‘Silk Road’ Initiative Is at Risk of Failure,” e Diplomat, 24 September 2015, chinas-silk-road-initiative-is-at- risk-of-failure/. 4. Andrea Chen, “China to stay on the sidelines in Turkey-Russia tensions,” South China Morning Post, 26 November 2015, http://www. defence/article/1883428/china-stay- sidelines-turkey-russia-tensions. 5. Mu Chunshan, “Why Doesn’t Russia Support China in the South China Sea?” e Diplomat, 21 June 2014, why-doesnt-russia-support-china- in-the-south-china-sea/. 6. Carol Williams, “First Russia-China naval war games underway in Mediterranean,” Los Angeles Times, 11 May 2015, http://www.latimes. com/world/europe/la-fg-china- 7. Bree Feng, “China Looks North: Carving Out a Role in the Arctic,” Canada-Asia Agenda (Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada), 30 April 2015, https://www.asiapaci canada-asia-agenda/china-looks- north-carving-out-role-arctic. 8. “BRICS/SCO summits at a glance: New Development Bank, Greece crisis, Iran oil,” RT, 10 July 2015, business/273013-brics-summit- wrap-up/.

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