Russian aggressiveness of recent times is attracting more and more attention, not only to the actions of the Kremlin, but also to a country that, staying in the shadows and not making any sudden movements, is in fact the key figure in the current geopolitical aggravation - China.
If we take into account the factor of China, then the cautious and seemingly unfriendly actions of Germany become more understandable. Actually, its attempts to appease the Kremlin come not only and not so much from the desire to simply continue business with Russia “as always”, but fears about such an alliance between Beijing and Moscow. And actually the fact that Berlin will be left behind.
This is clear both to Europe and the USA. Even if you just look at American publications on security issues, you can see that earlier the topic of Russia and China was often described separately, but now - a rare analysis of Russia's actions in Ukraine does not mention China.
Despite the undoubted intensification of interaction between Moscow and Beijing, let's see how deep their real partnership is.
After 2014, Russia declared a pivot to the East. Moscow and Beijing now describe their relationship as "strategic cooperation and a comprehensive partnership." Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping call each other best friends, and the armed forces conduct joint exercises. At the same time, Beijing avoids calling Russia an ally in any official documents, although it emphasizes partnership.
But is their friendship really that strong? Or is it a temporary coalition to solve current problems, which will result in alienation in the future?
Let's see what the meeting between Putin and Xi Jinping scheduled for early February at the opening of the Beijing Olympics will change.
Let us consider the main aspects of Russian-Chinese cooperation in three directions: foreign policy, economic and military.
Both Russia and China are critical of the existing international system, which they see as imposed by the West. Both Beijing and Moscow seek to end US hegemony in international affairs. They seek to weaken the ties between the US and its allies, and generally weaken the West from within, increasing divisions within Western countries. Both countries view the policies of the United States and, more broadly, of the West as a challenge to their security, their national interests, and existing regimes of power. They are convinced that the US is looking for opportunities to promote the idea of democracy and human rights - which means regime change in Russia and China.
Both Putin and Xi believe that their vulnerability to color revolutions is due to fundamental flaws in the current world order – the combination of institutions, ideas and power structures that determines the course of world politics. Instead, the new world order demanded by Russia and China will be based on the division of spheres of influence.
But there is also a difference. Moscow is convinced that the world system is already falling apart, and the chance to secure better conditions for itself in the new era is to actively break the existing order. There is dissatisfaction in Beijing with the status quo, but the leadership of the CCP is striving to reformat the current world system in its favor while maintaining its basic elements.
Russia is in decline, seeking to assert its regional authority and not fall out of history, China is a rising power with a much longer planning time horizon to achieve global influence.
While Russia aspires to become one of the world's great powers, China rather hopes to oust the United States as a key world power. Now China is clearly aiming for American-style global hegemony.
Beijing has a feeling that time and history are on China's side.
For Moscow and Beijing, the Ukraine crisis is part of a struggle to reduce American influence and make the world safe for autocrats.
The crisis around Ukraine is a struggle for the future world order, because it concerns precisely these issues.
Russia and China have many common strategic goals, with Moscow publicly backing Beijing more than the other way around. But their partnership has its limits. China has not recognized the annexation of Crimea by Russia and is rather cautious in supporting Russia's actions in Ukraine. Although in many UN votes, it rather supported Russia or took a neutral position.
July 2, 2021, Putin signed Strategy 2021 for the development of Russia's foreign policy. What does this document, which is, as it says, a basic document of strategic planning, say about a comprehensive partnership with China? Surprisingly, almost nothing! After reading this text, there is an involuntary desire to rename it rather into the "Strategy of grievances and claims against the West." Because most of the text is devoted specifically to the "intrigues of the West" and concern for the preservation of the regime (well, and the moral leadership of Russia), but not to describe the fundamental principles of relations with the rest of the world. Such an important ally as China is mentioned once (p. 40) and together with India. If the Strategy-2015 emphasized the intention to develop partnership relations with China and, separately, privileged relations with India, then in Strategies 2021 - these countries are separated by commas.
Since 2010, China has been Moscow's largest trading partner, providing it with an economic lifeline in the face of deteriorating relations with the West.
The trade turnover between Russia and China in 2021 increased by 35.8%, reaching a record high of $146.88 billion (in 2019 - $110.75 billion, and in 2020 it decreased by 2.9% to $107.76 billion).
But in the structure of China's economy, these are completely insignificant numbers when compared with China's total external trade turnover (it grew by 30.3% in 2021, reaching a record high of $6.05 trillion). At the same time, the trade turnover between China and the United States in 2021 also increased by 28.7%, amounting to $755.64 billion, i.e. 5 times more than with Russia. Even with Australia, with which China has a trade war, trade grew by 35% to $231 billion.
The basis of Russian exports is oil and gas trading
The Russian Federation acts as the leading exporter of oil to China, second only to Saudi Arabia. In addition, Russia is trying to increase gas exports to China, although Turkmenistan is still the absolute leader in this direction (accounting for about 60% of gas supplies to China).
Russia has nothing to promote on the Chinese market, except for oil, gas, timber, coal, metal and certain groups of food products.
In five years, Gazprom has built a gas pipeline to China - the Power of Siberia, with a length of 2.2 thousand kilometers. Even after the Chinese refused to invest in it, more than a trillion rubles of budgetary funds were spent on this construction, which unlikely to ever pay off . For the sake of the Power of Siberia, Gazprom was provided with unprecedented tax breaks.
Russian gas is the cheapest for the Chinese market. Moscow keeps in secret the price at which it has pledged to supply gas. According to the Chinese side, last year the price was only $118.5 per thousand cubic meters . This is three times lower than the price of gas, which was publicly named three years ago. From other sources, in 2020, Gazprom's revenue from the sale of gas to China amounted to 44.3 billion rubles, which, with a volume of 4.1 billion cubic meters of gas, gives an average price of about $150 per 1 thousand cubic meters.
The Power of Siberia gas pipeline was launched a year and a half ago (with a declared capacity of 38 billion cubic meters per year), but the volume of supplies through it is still far from the plans - in 2020, only 4 billion cubic meters of gas were delivered. For comparison, 147 billion cubic meters were delivered to Europe in 2020.
In 2021, the Russian government planned to allocate 175 billion rubles from the National Wealth Fund for the construction of the eastern branch of the BAM to expand export of coal to China. Russia also exports about 15 million cubic meters of round timber per year, 70% of which goes to China.
Since 2016, the Central Bank of Russia has increased the share of investments in the yuan from zero to 12-15%, while the yuan has depreciated against the dollar by about 10% during this time. At the same time, the Russian economy is not a priority for investors from China, and China's state-owned banks are in no hurry to violate the sanctions imposed by the US and the EU.
Growing bilateral economic disparities pose the biggest challenge to Sino-Russian rapprochement. And this problem will only get worse.
For Moscow, the structure of bilateral trade is a source of constant discontent. In recent years, Russia has been reduced to the role of a supplier of raw materials and resources (especially energy, which accounts for more than 70 percent of Russian exports to China), and its role as a source of technology for Chinese industry is gradually fading away.
Beijing and Moscow are increasingly competing for the same global markets. China has overtaken Russia to become the world's second largest arms producer.
Cooperation in the military-technical sphere
In 2016-20 Russia's share accounted for 20% of total global arms exports, which was 22% lower than in 2011-15, when it reached its peak. India remained the main recipient of Russian weapons in 2016-20, accounting for 23% of the total, followed by China (18%) and Algeria (15%). However, deliveries from Russia to India decreased by 53% in 2016-20, and its share in the total volume of Indian arms imports decreased from 70% to 49%. China's share of total Russian arms exports is also falling from over 60% in 2005 to just 14.5% in 2019 (total value of $688 million).
Sales of Russian weapons to China fell from over 25% of the total value of trade in the 1990s, peaking in the early 2000s, to a sharp decline and is currently are only 3 percent of the total volume of bilateral trade between countries.
China now competes with Russia in the arms markets. Russia is increasingly relying on Chinese technology to develop weapons, as long as Beijing is willing to sell them. So far, deepening technical cooperation between Russia and China allows them to circumvent US sanctions and restrictions on technology exports. Overall, over the past decade, defense cooperation has grown as the value of transfers has increased, while economic importance has declined. Therefore, as experts say, today defense deals are not the driving force behind mutual cooperation.
Russia and China held their first joint naval exercise in 2012 off the coast of Qingdao in the Yellow Sea. Since then, joint sea exercises have been conducted in the Mediterranean in 2015 and in the Baltic in 2017; none of these places is a traditional area of operations for the Chinese Navy. In 2019, bilateral naval exercises were again held in the Yellow Sea. In September 2020, Chinese troops took part in the Kavkaz-2020 exercise. More recently, trilateral maneuvers Russia-China-Iran took place in the Indian Ocean.
Despite Russia's assistance in China's military modernization, the latest Russian weapons and equipment usually went to India, not China. This picture began to change somewhat in 2015, when China became the first foreign buyer of the Russian Su-35 multirole fighter, signing a contract to receive 24 aircraft by the end of 2018. China also became the first international buyer of the S-400 Triumph air defense system, signing a contract for two sets in 2014. The delivery of the second set was completed at the end of 2019. Rostec also reported in 2019 that its subsidiary Russian Helicopters signed a contract to supply 121 helicopters to China in early 2019.
Despite cooperating on a variety of defense-related projects, Russia and China continue to compete in this sector. Following a border standoff between India and China in June 2020, India asked Russia to expedite the delivery of S-400s. In other words, despite its "alliance" with China, Russia is helping India close the gap in air defense capabilities.
Another point of contention for the Russo-Chinese alliance is Russia's longstanding military relationship with Vietnam, whose claims in the South China Sea most closely match those of China. According to SIPRI database, Russia was the source of over 83% of all Vietnamese arms imports between 2005 and 2019. In 2019, Russian exports to Vietnam were estimated at $138 million (Belarus is in the second place, which exported $23 million worth of weapons to Vietnam). Russia and Vietnam also regularly conduct military exercises.
These examples of Russia's military relations with India and Vietnam - countries involved in territorial and maritime disputes with China - show that, despite rosy assurances of partnership, Russia and China have not developed a common position on territorial issues. It is also clear that defense relations with other countries have not been sacrificed on the altar of bilateral defense relations between Russia and China.
So while Russia and China have significant incentives to deepen cooperation, some difficult defense issues are unlikely to be resolved. China will continue to spy on Russia, try to reengineer Russian equipment and force it out of the arms sales markets.
Thus, as experts say, the proximity in bilateral defense relations between Russia and China seems to be based more on disagreement with the position of the West than on a clear agreement on any issue. In essence, this cooperation is based, first of all, on temporary expediency, and not on the recognition of common goals and directions.
Problems in Russian-Chinese relations
The key problem of the Russian-Chinese alliance is the lack of trust on both sides and the intractable asymmetry of relations.
Beijing does not trust Moscow, and there is really no reason for such trust, since in this alliance Russia will always be a junior and subordinate partner. The Kremlin is well aware that the game and threats that Russia can use to blackmail the West, eventually presenting it as great victories for its own population, are completely impossible with China. And in the event of the first conflict of interest with China, Russia will have to quietly accept whatever Beijing demands.
There are also fears from the Chinese side that Moscow, behind Beijing's back, will reach some agreements with Washington, and will also begin to take into account the Indian position in the region to a greater extent to the detriment of China's interests.
By and large, Russia does not know and does not understand China, especially at the level of an ordinary resident, and all the contradictions simply do not stick out for the time being. One of the problems of a real union between Russia and China is also Russia's "Westernness". Yes, however paradoxical it may sound, Russia, for all its rhetoric and attempts to turn to Asia, is much more of a European country than the Kremlin would like. The Russian elite is connected to the West, lives there and sees its future there, and not in Shanghai or Beijing.
Problem of the "Lost Territories"
The problems between China and Russia are potentially wider and more dangerous. It's just that Beijing has not yet put them on the official diplomatic agenda, and Moscow is trying to ignore the growing Chinese revanchism.
The territorial issue of Russia and China has been discussed for a long time, ever since the transfer of Damansky Island to China in 1991. In 2005, after Russia transferred Tarabarov Island, half of Bolshoi Ussuriysky Island and Bolshoy Island in the Chita Region in the Amur River Delta to China, the issue escalated.
The “Lost Territories” is perhaps the most sensitive mythology in the mass consciousness of the Chinese nation, which is easy for Beijing to activate when necessary, or when internal tension grows. China domestically continues to promote the image of Russia as one of the colonial powers that took advantage of the weakness of a neighbor and took away many native Chinese territories during China's century of humiliation at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. It is no coincidence that the topic of annexation of Haishenwei is present in Chinese textbooks.
Recent steps on the return to the map of the PRC of the historical name Aigun, where one of the unequal treaties between tsarist Russia and the Qing Empire was signed, is just one example. “Hong Kong and Macau have returned to their homeland. Why not Vladivostok? - lamented in March 2020, popular historian blogger Yuan Zaiyu (Yuan Zayu).
In 2020, Russia was vehemently condemned on Chinese social media after it held a celebration of the founding of Vladivostok - because it is on land that used to be part of China.
Yes, and the Russian media are full of headlines, like: “The court stopped construction of a Chinese water bottling plant on Baikal”, “How Chinese plant for bottling drinking water on Lake Baikal has become an object of public hatred”, “ Inhabitants of Buryatia began collecting signatures against the Chinese deforestation project,” etc.
Russian-Chinese relations are saved by the absolute isolation of the media spaces of these two countries.
In September 2020, the Levada Center published the results of polls that demonstrate the ambivalent perception of the PRC and the Chinese among Russians. On the one hand, the view that China is Russia's closest friend is shared by 40% of respondents. According to this indicator, China lags behind Belarus only, which scored 58%. At the same time, the indicator for China depends on the state of relations between Russia and the West. Thus, until 2014, no more than 24% of Russians were ready to call China an ally of Russia. On a personal level, most Russians are not at all ready for close relationships with immigrants from China. Only 10% of Russian citizens are ready to see Chinese among their relatives or friends. 16% do not object to the Chinese becoming their neighbors or work colleagues. More than half of Russians prefer to keep Chinese citizens at a maximum distance from themselves, advocating a restriction or complete ban on their entry into Russia.
With all the narratives about friendship, Russia and China still have areas where their interests coincide only partially. The special services of the Russian Federation and the People's Republic of China are conducting active intelligence activities against each other.
The demarcation of their interests in Central Asia remains unclear and will be a potential source of conflict. For example, China was critical of the introduction of the CSTO forces into Kazakhstan, voicing the traditional position of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries, and the Russian Federation quietly left. Recently, China held its own summit with the leadership of the countries of Central Asia (CA), without the participation of the Russian Federation. At the same time, he promised the five Central Asian countries gratuitous assistance in the amount of $500 million. Not to mention the fact that China supplies arms to the Central Asian countries, which traditionally were completely dependent on Russia for this.
Chinese interests have already moved beyond economic investment and trade into the traditional realm of Russian military aid and control. China is very likely to be the provider of security in the region, and Russia will face the growing influence that China will gain from this. In Tajikistan, China opens a new military base without asking Russia's permission. The beginning of the implementation of the New Silk Road initiative coincided with the supply of Chinese air defense systems to Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan in the early 2010s. Beijing has since delivered Y-8 aircraft to Kazakhstan, QW-2 Vanguard 2 short-range air defense systems to Turkmenistan, VP 11 patrol vehicles to Tajikistan, and Wing unmanned aerial vehicles. Loong-1 to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
Melting ice in the Arctic also opens up a new area of competition in which China is seeking to play an increasingly prominent role. In January 2018, it published its first Arctic policy paper, arguing that while countries not directly adjacent to the Arctic do not have territorial sovereignty rights, they are allowed to conduct a wide range of operations and tasks there. Given its proximity to the Far North, China calls itself a subarctic state and an important stakeholder in Arctic affairs that seeks to participate in the governance of the Arctic. China has proposed a Polar Silk Road to develop Arctic shipping lanes that would complement land transit routes and thereby expand its trade and influence in the region.
Beijing's willingness to participate in the extraction of hydrocarbon resources is also of concern to Moscow. But here Russia's ambitions are constrained by the lack of the necessary significant investments and technologies. China became the largest foreign partner of Russia in projects for the production of liquefied natural gas (LNG) in the Arctic. This collaboration is driven by both commercial and political factors. In the context of Western sanctions against the Russian Federation, it was China that provided Russia with the money and technology necessary to launch resource projects in the Russian Arctic, while further increasing the dependence of the Russian Federation.
The fact that Russia and China are seeking a closer relationship, despite all the difficulties, indicates a desire to capitalize on this partnership, against the backdrop of confronting a common enemy. While a formal alliance may never materialize, this does not detract from the active cooperation between Beijing and Moscow in realizing their aspirations to reformat the existing world order. How Russian experts write themselves, non-interference in each other's internal affairs, and the authoritarian nature of both regimes ensure not only the absence of serious political friction, but also set a common agenda in many issues of global regulation. But is this enough for a long-term strategic partnership if the internal situation or the external conjuncture changes?
So far, the confrontation between the Russian Federation and China and the United States is accelerating the rapprochement between Moscow and Beijing. But what if Moscow's hopes that China will not be able to take the place of the United States and become the new hegemon of the world system, dictating its own rules, are not justified? Is Russia ready to become a completely dependent outlying vassal? Does Moscow itself risk becoming a bargaining chip in the global confrontation? Moreover, under any configuration, Russia is assigned the role of a junior partner and a raw material appendage.