With the advent of Donald Trump and the rise of populism in much of the western world, many fear we have descended into a new age of authoritarianism in which Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping set the tone for international politics. While China and Russia have enjoyed close relations in recent years, easily dismissing the foreign policies of these two countries obscures more than it clarifies.
Though these two leaders deploy harsh repression against civil society critics and are determined to crush the first hint of any “colour” revolutions, their world outlooks are far from congruent and the bilateral relationship between their two states generates considerable friction below the surface protestations of friendship and good neighbourliness within a “strategic partnership.” Both sides acknowledge each other as their first strategic partners; nonetheless, they are far from allies.
The two countries and their leaders are joined in deep suspicion and active rejection of a global liberal hegemony led by the U.S. and supported by Europe and the U.S.’s allies. But they do not share a single vision of global governance, nor do they bring to global governance, the same toolkit with which to influence global outcomes.
China is the stronger economic power whose strength is derived largely from the benefits of globalization. It is a strong supporter of free trade and the multilateral trading order, and it is willing to use considerable economic and financial resources to support it. Just recently, China’s Xi travelled to the Davos Forum in Switzerland to reaffirm his unshakeable support for open trade and globalization, warning against “closing oneself off in a dark room.”
Russia’s comparative advantage lies overwhelmingly with oil and gas, with strength in other natural resources. This is the basis of considerable trade complementarity that masks an uncomfortable asymmetry in the bilateral relationship. Russia leans on the legacy of Soviet Cold War militarization to achieve goals along its periphery, but also further afield, in the Middle East. China has been steadily and cautiously building its military forces, but tends to shy away from direct military confrontation. It prefers to hide its strength behind a screen of pawns rather than sacrificing them in military adventures. Whereas Putin looks to asymmetrical hybrid conflicts to gain tactical advantage, China chooses to steadily build up its comprehensive national strength. It looks to dominate in the long term, rather than scramble for temporary advantage. For that reason, the two countries hold contrasting views over the need for global stability. China craves peace and development as the backdrop for its peaceful rise. Putin moves from accommodation to confrontation as tactical advantages arise. China does not need to win points so long as it gradually gains strategic ground.
As the world’s largest oil importer, China leans on Russia to support its energy security. China imports most of its oil from the Middle East, with Saudi Arabia its largest supplier. That oil must travel to China by sea, through the Indian Ocean and the Strait of Malacca before reaching the South China Sea. Much of this route is patrolled by the U.S. navy, leaving China vulnerable to an oil cutoff should relations with the U.S. deteriorate. Russia supplies China with oil from Siberia, which flows directly overland by pipeline into China’s northeast, where China’s largest conventional domestic reserves are dwindling and where much of China’s petrochemical industry is housed. But Russia’s reserves in eastern Siberia are limited and it cannot supply more than a fraction of China’s needs. Furthermore, Putin has been wary of relying on China as a sole customer with the leverage China gains over pricing.
Putin has flirted time and again with Japan and Korea as economic partners for Siberian resources. Russia also supplies China with natural gas along the same route. Again, these supplies are not sufficient to meet China’s demand, and Russia has reached another contract to supply China in the west, involving a spur from Russia’s West Siberian fields into China’s northwestern Xinjiang territory. This is relatively far from China’s major centres of demand along the coast, and supplies into Xinjiang compete with abundant gas, supplied from the former Soviet Republic of Turkmenistan, and which travels through Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan to China.
Western Siberian gas also flows west to Europe and the Chinese, given the Turkmen alternative, have been able to negotiate a price lower than that paid by Europe once Russia was hit by European sanctions. Similarly, China is a major investor in oil from Kazakhstan, which likewise enters China by pipeline to Xinjiang. The Russians are keenly aware that friendship with China comes without special favours. At the same time, the economic inroads China has made in Russia’s backyard, in former Soviet Central Asia, are further cause for wariness.
Russia wary of China’s reverse-engineering
China makes a point of not poking the bear in that region, but nonetheless, Central Asia’s authoritarian and secular post-Soviet leaders are eager for whatever economic benefits they can negotiate with the Chinese. China not only provides economic assistance through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, it has also announced a major initiative around the New Silk Road or One Belt-One Road, which is aimed at boosting infrastructure and connectivity from East Asia across the Eurasian continent.
That means the Russian-sponsored customs union, the Eurasian Union, is less enthusiastically embraced than it might be otherwise, and the post-Soviet Central Asian “stans” have been eager to embrace the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, originally designed to secure the region’s post-Soviet borders, as an organization promoting economic development under the sponsorship of China. The One Belt- One Road (OBOR) or New Silk Road initiative promoted by Xi has further enhanced the prospects of economic co-operation with China to the relative detriment of Moscow’s patronage in the region.
In the Middle East, while China and Russia have together vetoed UN resolutions condemning Syria, they are not entirely aligned. China has cultivated good ties with the Saudi monarchy, its largest supplier of oil. Russia’s patronage of Syria puts it alongside Iran in the great religious schism of Islam.
One area of significant, but eroding, complementarity is the area of high technology weapons supplies and the supply of weapons technology. Following the imposition of weapons embargoes on China after June 1989, in the waning days of the Soviet Union, Russia became a major support for the modernization of the People’s Liberation air force and navy. That support continued under president Boris Yeltsin and an independent Russia. This included complete fighter aircraft, submarines, destroyers and ancillary weapons systems.
However, Russia became increasingly wary of Chinese efforts to reverse-engineer Soviet weaponry and pirate Russian intellectual property. China’s J-11 and J-15 aircraft are near-clones of the Sukhoi Su-27 and Sukhoi Su-33s sold to China. Intellectual property became the major sticking point in negotiations to supply Sukhoi Su-35s as an interim fifth-generation fighter aircraft. Today, China is emerging as a major weapons innovator on its own, just as it earlier perfected expertise in rocketry. Russia still maintains a lead in advanced jet engines on which China relies for some of its newest aircraft, but Russians have few illusions that they can maintain exports into the future.
China-U.S. trade dwarfs China-Russia trade
Nuclear energy is another area of co-operation. Russia has supplied China with two reactors and plans have now been made for another two. Again, Chinese reliance on Russian technology is likely to decline over time, as China strengthens technical co-operation with France’s Areva and comes up with its own indigenous designs.
So, while Sino-Russian trade has grown almost 18 per cent per annum in recent years, total trade is still less than $100 billion US, with Russia taking only about two per cent of Chinese exports. While Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev pledged to more than double the Russia-China trade volume to $200 billion by 2020, even this aspirational goal would represent less than 10 per cent of China’s total trade. Under any scenario, Sino-U.S. trade would dwarf trade with Russia. There is no prospect under which mutual trade could displace or replace respective trade with Europe or the U.S.
China actively supports the UN and UN peacekeeping, forges ahead in bilateral and regional multilateral free-trade agreements, sponsors multilateral economic development banks, including the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the BRICS New Development Bank (where Russia is a joint sponsor). China has its sights on a stable global order with itself at its centre. Russia strives to retain a role as a great power through disruption.
It is telling that while Russia openly celebrated the election of Trump, China’s reaction was muted, even sombre. The Chinese media did not cover the inauguration live. Not only was Trump’s challenge to China clear in his inauguration speech, China did not welcome either the prospect of confrontation or the prospect of a new Trump-Putin axis. Xi chose to have himself photographed with Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko while attending the annual gathering at Davos. This was a less than subtle message that Russia and China’s interests are not congruent.
In the transactional world that Trump has summoned up, it will take some time before future alignments settle down. China has long relished a warm relationship with Germany and German Chancellor Angela Merkel that is no less cherished than its relationship with Russia. It would be foolish and patently wrong to imagine a Russia-China alignment, still less an alliance, aimed at the west. Chinese diplomats and senior officials have explicitly ruled out such a development.
Limited Russia-China partnership
Ironically, the election of Trump has removed one of the major planks of China’s alignment with Russia. China has, with Russia, feared a hegemony of liberal values that would encourage civil society activists that threaten “colour revolutions.” By rejecting this kind of liberal interventionism himself, Trump removed one of the major factors underlining the cosiness between Beijing and Moscow. Furthermore, for strategic reasons and because of the environmental burden, China needs to wean itself from a fossil fuel-fed economy that Putin and Trump would like to see extended into the indefinite future.
Thus, while the relationship between China and Russia is more than the “axis of convenience” — as the British academic Bobo Lo termed it — it is neither as intimate as some fear. Xi has met with Putin more often than with any other world leader, well over a dozen times since taking office in 2013, but limited economic complementarity and deep-seated suspicions bedevil the relationship. Many Russians are still fearful that China has designs on Russia’s sparsely populated Far East, most of it seized from China by 19th-Century “unequal” treaties. Chinese businesses and businessmen have regularly faced racially motivated harassment in major Russian cities and, in some cases, have had their goods confiscated. Still, polling shows Chinese and Russians maintaining favourable views of each other in international relations and there is a lively exchange of tourism, with Russian students making up one of the largest contingents of foreign students in China. This is a solid relationship, but not a feared anti-western bloc. Putin faces Xi as a self-professed Christian European, while Xi is an avowed Communist atheist who believes in Asia for the Asians.
Where Russia noisily persecutes LGBT activities, China quietly tolerates depoliticized LGBT behaviour.
China and Russia may see eye to eye on liberalism and opposition to Islamic fundamentalism, but their hearts do not beat in unison. Russia and China may trade and even conduct yearly joint military exercises, but as the Chinese saying goes, “same bed, different dreams.”
Jeremy Paltiel is professor of political science at Carleton University, specializing in Chinese politics and the politics of East Asia.