Friday, November 21, 2014

Russia’s long-lasting turn to China

The bolstering of Russian-Chinese ties stands out as one of the key international consequences of the Ukrainian crisis. Attempting to push back against Western sanctions, Russia turned to the East and embraced China as a very close partner. Over the course of the past few months, both sides finalised decade-long negotiations leading to the signing of a 30-year gas deal. They also concluded numerous agreements on economic co-operation, including one envisioning Chinese companies constructing a high-speed railway linking the Russian cities of Moscow and Kazan. Russia’s turn to China did not, however, start with the Ukrainian crisis. Its roots go even deeper than Putin’s third presidential term with its increasingly anti-Western and conservative agenda. The focus on China is embedded in the 2008-2009 global economic crisis.

Ten years ago, in the mid-2000s, such a turn to China seemed implausible. Russian-Chinese relations were said to have run out of the post-Cold War steam they had been running on. Despite important positive bilateral developments, such as the signing of the border agreement, the creation of the Shanghai Co-operation Organization (SCO) and the provision of military equipment necessary for the modernisation of the Chinese armed forces, the Russian-Chinese rapprochement was facing a growing number of obstacles. No energy partnership materialised. Russia was at pains to avoid dependence on China in its plans for oil and gas exports to Asia and was repeatedly reaching out to Japan, South Korea and other potential customers. Moscow delayed decision on the construction of Asian pipelines, attempting to stir up competition for its natural resources. The arms sales to China stalled, with Russia unwilling to provide the most advanced weapons and unable to come to terms with China’s illegal copying. As China’s influence in Central Asia grew incrementally, the region was expected to turn into the field of competition and rivalry in the immediate future. Globally, despite shared criticisms of American international primacy, both states pursued different policies. Russia challenged US predominance while China searched for a modus vivendi. Taken together, these developments were, it seemed, not conducive to a more amicable relationship between Moscow and Beijing. China moved up the international power ladder and increased the distance separating it from Russia. The global economic crisis of 2008-2009 only reinforced these trends: China’s rise accelerated, while Russia’s resurgence hit the doldrums.

Surprisingly, Russia and China did not drift apart. On the contrary, Moscow turned towards Beijing. Following the economic crisis, energy co-operation recommenced. Russia constructed the first oil pipeline to China, and this was followed by the signing of a series of contracts on oil deliveries. These made Chinese companies Russia’s most important customer in the Asian market. Chinese banks turned into the main source of financing for Russian energy behemoths, such as Rosneft and Transneft. Security co-operation encompassed not only regular military exercises on land (the Peace Mission) but also joint naval drills. Trade in arms revived and both sides expect to conclude new contracts on such weapons as the Su-35 fighters in the coming months. In Central Asia, Moscow and Beijing found ways to divide their influences, with China dominating the energy realm and Russia the security realm. Moreover, both sides seem able to reconcile their respective initiatives directed towards the region – the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union and the Chinese ‘Silk Road Economic Belt’. Globally, China began to replace Russia as the West’s key interlocutor and emerged as the major coordinator of non-Western states in multilateral forums, such as the G-20 or BRICS. Even the Russian-American ‘reset’ initiated in 2009 did not weaken ties between Moscow and Beijing. Moreover, in the early-2010s Russian and Chinese policies towards the US converged. Both states put pressure on the US (in Eastern Europe and East Asia respectively) and opposed global American initiatives (e.g. blocking intervention in the Syrian civil war).

The 2014 Ukrainian crisis had the potential to scupper this booming Russia-China co-operation. Having inspired a referendum in Crimea and annexed the peninsula, Moscow put Beijing in a highly uncomfortable position. Russia infringed upon the principles of non-interference and territorial integrity, cherished by China for reasons related to its own fears of separatism, particularly in Tibet and Xinjiang. Despite these serious doubts, Beijing decided to support Moscow. China explained its neutral position with regard to the annexation of Crimea with reference to specific historic circumstances and stopped short of criticising Russia for its ‘silent intervention’ in Eastern Ukraine. During subsequent bilateral and multilateral summits, Chinese leaders offered Vladimir Putin political and economic support rather than criticism.

The Ukrainian crisis did not open a new chapter in Russian-Chinese relations; it validated changes which had been underway since the global economic crisis: Russia’s increasing acceptance of China’s superior position and Beijing’s policy of self-restraint towards Moscow. For a more nuanced account of the developments leading to this outcome, see my forthcoming book.

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