Main Image Credit Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing on 4 February 2022. Courtesy of kremlin.ru / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 4.0
Despite the optics of a Sino-Russian presidential summit at a time of heightened tensions with the West, the trust upon which their bilateral relationship is built remains shaky.
President Xi Jinping and President Vladimir Putin held a much-vaunted meeting in Beijing on 4 February, on the cusp of the Winter Olympics. The summit was hailed as a diplomatic success, with ad nauseam repetitions that the very fact of their meeting – against the backdrop of burgeoning tensions over Russia’s troop build-up along Ukraine’s border, and air incursions by China’s People’s Liberation Army into Taiwan’s air defence identification zone – offered a symbolic kickstart to unveiling their grand plans for a new world order. But while it is tempting to view the summit as the apex of a newly rejigged axis of power, their wide-ranging joint statement does not suggest depth. In reality, Putin returned from Beijing with few concrete measures to proffer to his people, though both he and Xi gained an additional boost to their symbolic partnership.
The all-encompassing partnership agreement that Xi and Putin signed sounded expansive on paper. But much of the substance was not new, and simply reaffirmed existing commitments.
Russia and China’s political administrations are often couched as complementary or even acting in tandem due to their similar approaches to authoritarianism and securitisation. In international forums, they appear to act in concert, or at least avoid inhibiting one another – China and Russia were notably the only countries to vote ‘no’ in an attempt to prevent the UN Security Council from meeting to discuss Russia’s military activity on the Ukrainian border.
But while it is true that they share similar interpretations of global norms, from cyberspace to the Antarctic and outer space, differences remain. China has resisted committing too deeply to Russia’s internationally contentious political position on the annexed territory of Crimea, abstaining in a UN vote in 2014 on invalidating Russia’s takeover of the territory – a view that it maintains.
Evidently there are still limits to Beijing’s support for Russia. It was revealing that the Ukraine situation was absent from their joint statement, suggesting that China’s so-called strategic partnership with Russia does not extend to all its military ventures.
Russia’s Energy Emergency
Probably the most significant product of the summit for Russia was the signing of a 30-year energy deal to deliver gas from Russia’s Far East to northeastern China. Although the details have not been specified yet, the deal is likely to involve gas from the undeveloped Yuzho-Kirinskoye field off Russia’s Sakhalin Island in the Pacific. Since the US added the gas and oil field to its sanctions list in 2014, foreign investment and imports of badly needed drilling technology have been prohibited, and commercial gas production cannot begin until 2023.
For both countries, the growing partnership is a useful symbolic show of force demonstrating that neither is alone, while allowing for some engagement in comfortable areas of bilateral cooperation
This puts Russia in the uncomfortable position of being a junior exporter fulfilling China’s energy needs, a framing of the relationship that it has historically attempted to resist. The bulk of Russia’s energy infrastructure, including its pipeline network, is orientated towards Western Europe, where it has met European demand for oil and gas for decades. Despite the political tensions in Europe, Russia has pledged to continue to meet its client obligations, and suggestions that Russia might entirely reorientate its well-established, expensive pipeline network towards China are impractical.
Russia and China’s relationship in specific areas is certainly deepening, but for logical reasons. China’s domestic economy is struggling with Beijing’s restrictive ‘zero-COVID’ measures and a slowdown in the property sector. Its foreign policy is also creating frictions, with NATO and the transatlantic community increasingly expressing concerns about China’s strategic intent to become a ‘great power’, with potentially disruptive consequences for the international liberal rules-based order – a view expressed by other regional powers such as Japan and Australia.
Beijing has reacted strongly to this growing scepticism among what it calls ‘small groups’ like the G7 and what it says is an ‘exaggeration of the China threat theory’ by NATO. It has become increasingly concerned by its reduced place in these diplomatic discussions – a common gripe from the Russian defence community, which views its security concerns as being side-lined and ignored by the West.
For both countries, the growing bilateral partnership is a useful symbolic show of force demonstrating that neither is alone, while allowing for some engagement in comfortable areas of bilateral cooperation. While the joint statement included a headline-grabbing stance on NATO, this builds on China’s long-held concerns over US influence in the grouping since the 1999 accidental bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, as well as suspicions that it will seek to expand into the Asia-Pacific. But the partnership also downplays the significant differences between Moscow and Beijing.
Fundamental Differences Remain
Scratch beneath the surface and the trust upon which this relationship is built is shaky. For Russia, China’s larger economy and population gives it an unattractive advantage.
Particularly contentious were China’s pledged large-scale infrastructure projects in Ukraine and Belarus as part of the Belt and Road Initiative, which appeared to offer China an economic foothold in countries that Russia views as part of its sphere of political, economic and security influence. Although China has since scaled back many of its planned infrastructure projects in Ukraine and Moldova, this was not an attempt to appease Russia, but rather a pragmatic economic decision.
At its core, the strategic rationale for the bilateral partnership is one of utility and necessity, rather than one of fundamental depth
Our research has shown that China and Russia have historically avoided confrontation with one another in countries of mutual interest like Serbia, where they broadly operate separately. And while Russia and China’s worldviews may occasionally align, the extent to which Beijing is prepared to be dragged into Russia’s view of European security affairs, and vice-versa, is debatable.
Much has been made of Russia and China’s joint military exercises, which commenced in 2003 and have tallied over 30 since. The bilateral exercises, although optically significant, are usually limited in their scope, integration of command and control structures, and interoperability. This can be contrasted with the November 2021 signing of Russia’s joint security doctrine with neighbouring Belarus, an ally with whom it has a much closer military and intelligence relationship. This is not to say that Sino-Russian military cooperation will not continue to evolve, but there are obstacles to deeper integration and trust.
Indeed, Russia has for many years viewed its border with China as a potential security risk, and despite warm relations at a diplomatic level, local Russian media in the Far East often repeat assertions of an imminent Chinese incursion across the border. The limits of their security relationship were particularly evident in the recent joint statement: while reaffirming their commitment to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, there were no suggestions of a bilateral security doctrine or mutual declarations on further military collaboration.
Media reports have speculated that China and Russia might consider coordinating a conflict on two fronts in Ukraine and Taiwan, which would stretch US focus and resources. But this does not account for Beijing’s likely low risk appetite while hosting the Winter Olympics and preparing for the all-important 20th Party Congress at the end of 2022, when Xi’s third term in office will be confirmed. Given the extreme political sensitivity over Taiwan, Beijing will not be easily convinced to make a move based on a timeline set by Russian interests, rather than its own military readiness and strategic necessity. Any perceived or real coordination spells the end of either country operating autonomously and without consequences for the other. Discussions over US force contributions to Ukraine have already been met with calls to maintain US strategic focus on China.
At its core, the strategic rationale for the bilateral partnership is one of utility and necessity, rather than one of fundamental depth. Although the joint statement stresses that the bilateral relationship is not ‘affected by the changing international environment and circumstantial changes in third countries’, this directly contradicts previous messaging. Indeed, a few weeks ago, Andrey Kelin, Russia’s Ambassador to the UK, maintained that it was negative pressure from NATO – and the US in particular – that was pushing Russia and China closer together. This does not sound like a naturally harmonious union, but rather a mutually self-serving partnership forced together and given renewed urgency by circumstance.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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Former Senior Research Fellow, Asia-Pacific
Research Fellow, Russian and Eurasian Security