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#Analize / Mălina Mîndruțescu

Is China changing its course on Russia?

All around the world, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been on everyone’s lips. As Russian President, Vladimir Putin, escalated the military conflict, continuing to aim towards Kiev, in the hopes of overthrowing the government, the Western Alliance has imposed some of the harshest sanctions against Russia, some of which have no precedent.

In the meantime, Russia’s big neighbour to the east, is closely observing the situation. In the last couple of years, the relation between China and Russia has solidified.

Since the 2014 invasion of Crimea, Russia has been hit hard by Western sanctions. Its economy has been bleeding ever since, while in these past eight years, the East-West divide had hardened. Relations between Russia and the West have grown more hostile, and President Putin has been trying ever since to find alternative alliances that could loosen his economic dependence to the West.

China has also seen strategic benefits, in the context of a closer friendship with Russia. As the world’s greatest autocratic regimes, both world powers are noticing that, apart from strategic, military and economic interests, they are also tied by a more profound thread: both countries see eye to eye when it comes to their rejection of Western imperialism, US interventionism and hegemony, and are interested in providing an alternative to the present thinking surrounding the liberal order.

It is also important to mention, that in the case of their dialogue with Western allies, China and Russia have been constantly berated for their poor record relating to civil liberties, freedom of expression and human rights. With each other, this awkward conversation does not exist. Hence, the prospect for a more trusting relation between two countries which think alike, is a more plausible one between Russia and China, then with the Western states.

The turning point towards a more closely aligned direction between the two countries, occurred at the beginning of February, when President Putin attended the Opening Ceremony of the Winter Olympics, in Beijing.

There, the two leaders met – one of the first physical encounters both of them had had, since the onset of the pandemic (Xi Jinping has not left China, since the pandemic started). Their encounter marked an important foothold in their relation.

During the festivities, most Western countries declined to attend, boycotting the Olympics in protest of China’s illiberal treatment of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong and for its treatment of the Uighur minority in China. President Putin was a notable presence, which solidified the willingness of both leaders to engage and interact more closely on a wide spectrum of issues.

It is worth mentioning that there are three areas, in which China and Russia can collaborate more closely, and present a more united, co-dependent front: militarily (and strategically), economically and politically.

putin xi

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On the military front, China and Russia have been working more closely for a while now. China relies heavily on Russian equipment and education in the field, and both countries have organised a number of joint military exercises in the last few years.

“Russian-Chinese military transfers have increased sharply since 2015. These have been highlighted by a series of important arms transactions, including landmark contracts in 2015 for the sale of Su-35 combat aircraft and S-400 air defense systems worth $5 billion, followed by a series of important transactions involving the transfer of helicopters, submarine technology, and aircraft engines.

Joint technology projects have been especially important due to their expansion into new areas such as missile defense, taking on greater strategic importance. Together with an increase in combined exercises, joint air patrols, and key leader engagements, the resumption of large-scale arms transfers has contributed to a growing military convergence between Russia and China while enhancing their strategic partnership” states a report by the Centre for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS).

In the economic sphere, China and Russia have often been considered to be a match made in heaven, and to have a natural compatibility from an economic point of view.

“Russia has an abundance of natural resources, and its role in the global division of labour as a provider of metals, oil, gas and fertiliser is crucial. At the same time, China is a giant market for commodities, has technology, capital, infrastructure and expertise.

Ever since 2014, Russia started to look east and diversify away from Europe, in order to look for a more balanced trade structure”, explains Alexander Gabuev, an expert on Russia-China relations at the Carnegie Moscow Centre, for a podcast of the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund.

russia china relations

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As the Russian invasion of Ukraine is deepening, sanctions are forcing Russia to lean even harder on Chinese trade and investment, in order to stay afloat.

On the more dogmatic front, the similarity of the political regime is an important factor binding the two countries together. None of these countries are Western style democracies, and all the topics that are draining and concerning for Western leaders in terms of their dialogue with Russia and China, is non-existent between the two countries. The fact that these questions do not exist between the two leaders, creates a good bondage between the two nations.

Both Russia and China have a similar view in terms of global governance. On important issues, that would become increasingly more relevant in the future, such as cyber borders, internet governance and universal access to information, the two great powers are in tandem. They are also the only two autocracies who are permanent members of the UN Security Council, which could create an important room for cooperation.

Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, both countries are in simultaneous confrontations with the US. Russia’s rupture from the West over Crimea, pushed the country further into China’s arms. And, as we see now, a lot of these synergies are starting to be more deeply explored in a pipeline of projects, which brings the two countries closer together.

As China has hinted that it is interested in stepping, and becoming a negotiator with Russia, regarding the Ukraine invasion, it remains to be seen how much of China’s willingness to associate with Russia has remained, following Putin’s aggressive invasion of Ukraine.

For more on the subject of Russia and the Ukraine invasion, please click here and here.


Photo source: Daniren/Alamy

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