Vladimir Putin heads to Australia this week for the Brisbane G20 meeting, where he will receive a frosty welcome from Western leaders. However, whilst Western leaders like Tony Abbott debated whether or not to “shirtfront” the Russian President or declare him persona non grata, Vladimir Putin has been taking Russia’s relationship with China to a new level at the 25th anniversary APEC Summit in Beijing.
Russia’s relationship with China has found itself under increased scrutiny by Western commentators. In an article in Foreign Affairs, Gilbert Rozman argues that the Russo-Chinese partnership is here to stay. Others claim that Russian Eastern re-orientation is more tactical, as Moscow hopes that it can get a more equal partnership with Europe. As leaders prepare for what will be a tense G20 meeting, just how strong is Putin’s China card?
Similar national ideologies and mutual distrust of the current global order form the foundation of the contemporary Russo-Chinese partnership. Internally, both Moscow and Beijing have created a political environment in which political legitimacy is derived from stirring up nationalist sentiment. In the international space, Chinese fear of a U.S. pivot to Asia mirrors the anxiety in Moscow about a NATO expanding eastwards. Both sides worry that the Western supported “colour revolutions” in Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan and the Arab Spring, will be repeated. Both Russia and China are aided in their global goals by a strong partnership with the other.
Common interests have seen Russia and China achieve a great deal by strengthening their partnership even before the latest Russia-West crisis. The two settled a long disputed border, which considering they almost went to war over it in 1969, was hailed as one of Vladimir Putin’s “greatest foreign policy achievements.” Without border worries hanging over them, Russia and China have been able to develop a healthy diplomatic relationship. Xi Jinping, upon becoming Chinese President in 2013 chose Moscow as his first international trip, arriving with great fanfare. A number of high-level meetings during the Xi era have further strengthened this relationship. When tensions rose between Russia and the West in light of the former’s aggression in Eastern Ukraine, China was the natural place for the Kremlin to turn.
A strong Russo-Chinese bilateral relationship has translated into more cooperation in multilateral fora too. Russia and China, alongside four Central Asian partners, are members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). The SCO is a security, political and economic organisation which has its roots in the fight against extremism in Central Asia. Russia, once a reluctant partner, has now supported the proposed membership of Iran, India and Pakistan, which could mean that the SCO may represent nearly half of the world’s population. More globally, the BRICS partnership between Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa made a significant step towards increasing its influence when it announced in July the foundation of a development bank to rival the IMF and World Bank, to be based in Shanghai. As well as cooperating in the development of non-Western organisations, Russia and China have also openly challenged the West at the United Nations. Beijing has supported Putin’s position on Syria, and steadfastly refused to condemn Russia’s forays into Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, despite preaching commitment to national sovereignty and respect for territorial integrity elsewhere.
Russia and China’s energy relationship adds solidity to the ideological commonalities that have allowed the two to cooperate. Putin and Xi have a lot to be pleased with. In May a long awaited and much celebrated bilateral gas dealwas signed, which will see 38 billion cubic meters (bcm) of natural gas pass through a pipeline in Heilongjiang Province, over the very same border over which the two nearly went to war. The estimated US$400bn gas deal has been seen by some analysts as favouring the Chinese side, since it enjoyed a strong negotiating position due to Russia’s tensions with the West. In advance of his latest trip to Beijing, Putin announced a preliminary deal that will pipe a further 30bcm from its western gas fields, through the so-called Altai Pipeline, into China’s Xinjiang Province. A deal of this nature, if finalised, would make little economic sense for the Russians in the short-term, but would be a clear message to the West that Russia doesn’t plan on relying on European markets for its gas sales.
Still, a note of caution is needed with regards to the energy cooperation. Falling international prices, the further cost of developing pipelines, and the Chinese demand for lower prices due to the cost of transporting the gas from sparsely populated Xinjiang to the industrial heartlands in the east, mean that any further deals would be preceeded by years of wrangling. Even if Russia can eventually deliver on the proposed 38bcm (or even 68bcm) in gas exports to China, it will be a long way from reaching the 162.5bcm it exported to Europe in 2013. From the Chinese perspective, Russia of course has an important role to play as an energy partner, but Beijing’s efforts to diversify energy sources mean that Russia will share position with Saudi Arabia, Oman, Angola, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and other international suppliers.
A complex geopolitical reality will surely impact bilateral ties too. In the Middle East for example, China’s biggest source of energy imports, Russian and Chinese interests do not necessarily align. The Russian economy has been hit by falling oil prices, while China, the world’s largest energy importer, will benefit. While the mutual distrust of Western intentions in the region have united Russia and China, tensions between Moscow and Beijing may well rear their head as the West’s likely retreat from the Middle East leaving a vacuum and space for competition.
In East Asia, where Russia will need to sell a lot of gas if it hopes to make its eastern gas fields profitable, the geopolitical environment is equally complex. Russia will need Japan and South Korea as energy partners, and does a lot of trade with Vietnam, including arms sales. At the same time, all three countries have been angered of late by Chinese assertiveness in the South and East China Seas. As Russia hopes to position itself away from a West dominated by U.S. actions, it will have to accept that it is joining an East which will be increasingly influenced by China, in which its partnerships with China’s rivals may well cause problems in Beijing.
Anxiety about growing Chinese power isn’t a new phenomenon in Moscow. Two recent military exercises,Vostok 2010 and 2014, sought to demonstrate Russian military power in its Far Eastern Region. Both of these exercises had the U.S. and Japan, but also China as hypothetical enemies. Russian reticence to sell high-tech arms to China, in part influenced by a Chinese habit of reverse engineering and stealing technology, also shows a level of Russian anxiety that Putin’s rhetoric does well to hide. Russian arms exports to China between 2004 and 2013 rose by 14.5% compared to the previous ten year period, but that pales when placed in the context of a 229% increase in Chinese military spending over the same period.
Russia’s pivot to the East and thus Putin’s China card is a reality, and one the West must take into account. But if it is to form part of a winning hand, it will require a great deal of effort and a number of concessions on the part of Moscow. The Kremlin may feel that it has not been treated as an equal partner by the West, but as it moves towards Asia, it will have to deal with a new unequal relationship with China. Furthermore, competing interests and potential tension points exist between Russia and China, and they could easily erupt as both Russia and China fight for their own interests. In the event of any deterioration in Russo-Chinese relations, Moscow may well find it longs for the days of closer ties with the West.
 Data derived from the Stokholm Interantional Peace Research Institute databases, and interpreted by the author, for more information regarding methodology please contact the author.
The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security challenges of our time.