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A proper perspective on Sino-Russian relations

In light of President Xi’s latest visit to Russia, it would be appropriate to provide a nuanced perspective to the current state of Sino-Russian relations. It is understandably difficult for the western media to deliver this kind of nuance; this difficulty stems not only from western biases against both Russia and China that obstructs objective analysis, but also the complications inherent in bilateral relations. For the sake of brevity, I will make just two observations which is inadequately emphasized in modern-day discourse on the Sino-Russian bilateral relationship – incentives for cooperation and Russia’s true value as a “comprehensive” strategic partner.There is a highly questionable assumption in the West that the “warmth” of Sino-Russian relations depend mostly on each party’s relationship with the US & the west. In other words, western mainstream thinking suggests that Sino-Russian relations will have the appearance of improvement ONLY when US-Russia or US-China relations take a turn for the worse, and that China & Russia have little genuine practical interests that incentivize them to cooperate with each other.

This assumption may have been valid in the 90s & early 2000s, but it is becoming less and less so today. The most notable example of this trend is energy cooperation – a pillar of improving bilateral ties. Russia needs to diversify its energy & resource customer base away from Europe, capitalize on Asia’s emerging markets; China needs abundant, diverse, and secure energy supplies through non-maritime sources. Central Asia is another example. China & Russia both have strong incentives to prevent terrorism and the drug trafficking in Central Asia, and they would coordinate policies through institutions such as the SCO, regardless of their respective relationships with the West. Trade is yet another example. Russia needs to stimulate the economy of the Russian Far East, while China needs to revitalize its northeastern provinces. Sino-Russian cross-border trade is one of the channels through which both sides complement each others’ development needs. All of these are lasting interests that will not change regardless of the state of each country’s respective relationship with the EU or the US.

The second nuance about Sino-Russian relations that is hardly ever discussed is Russia’s true value as China’s “comprehensive” strategic partner. People often cite Russia’s importance in the individual microcosms of Russia as a trade partner, an energy exporter, an arms provider, or a political backer. In reality, Sino-Russian trade volumes are nowhere near that of China’s trade with US, Japan, or Germany. In the sphere of energy, Angola and Saudi Arabia are China’s top oil providers, Central Asia is China’s largest natural gas provider, while Mongolia and Australia are China’s main providers of imported coal. As for Russia’s role as a provider of advanced weaponry for the PLA, arms exports to China has steadily diminished since the mid-2000s, and despite recent reports about Su-35s and Lada submarines, is unlikely to return to its former height in the early 2000s. Moreover, Russia has the default status of being China’s main arms provider simply because the West and the US chose not to compete in the market (for obvious reasons). Last but not least, in the sphere of politics, while Russia supports most of China’s diplomatic stances in the international arena, Russia has virtually no ability to enhance or diminish the legitimacy of the Chinese government in the eyes of its own citizens, especially compared to the West’s ability to influence China’s internal politics, as well as China’s stature in the developing world and participation in international organizations, for better or worse. In addition, China and Russia have potential source of competition as well; competition for influence in Central Asia comes to mind right away (but keep in mind that competition exist in ANY bilateral relationship in international affairs).

That said, if Russia isn’t China’s most important trade partner, energy exporter, arms provider, or political backer, what then, is its key value proposition to the PRC? The answer is that Russia can be, and is, any and all of the above to some degree. Russia has a unique place in Chinese foreign policy, for no other country in the world has BOTH the intention AND the capability to cooperate with and provide benefits to China in ALL spheres of global interactions, be it trade, science/hi-tech, military cooperation, law enforcement, diplomacy, culture, or any other fields one would care to list. Granted it may not be China’s biggest benefactor in any aforementioned field, but Russia – as a “comprehensive” partner – can be best described as a jack of all traits, even though it’s a master of none.

Regardless of the state of China’s political and economic relationships with anyone else, it is imperative for China to continue maintaining stable, progressive, and mutually-respectful bilateral ties with Russia, given Russia’s unique importance as a comprehensive partner. Prospects of coordinating action against hegemonic behavior is simply icing on the cake.

  1. Zack
    March 30th, 2013 at 17:39 | #1

    from a realpolitik perspective, it’s useful for Beijing to cultivate a close relationship with Russia considering the misbehaviour of certain US administrations; we have to remember that Obama offered a ‘G-2’ relationship with China with the caveat being that China would play the junior role in the relationship. Since that’s as unacceptable as asking any hegemon to play the second fiddle to anything, that plan fell through, and the US started hardcore containment.
    The experience with Tsarist and Communist and modern Russia is really no different, unfortunately. Modern Mongolia was once part of Qing China until Russian forces tore it away from the nascent Republic of China.
    The lesson to be learned from all this is that modern China can’t depend or rely on anyone in the world as zhenyou, true friends

  2. March 30th, 2013 at 21:13 | #2

    If we simply look at the trade volume between Canada and America, that also gives another indication how much legroom for growth is between China and Russia. In the coming decades, indeed, the dynamics could dramatically change.

  3. Zack
    March 31st, 2013 at 01:27 | #3

    the thing with trade is that it’s not necessarily going to generate goodwill or trust; looking at the experience of China-US trade, trade with China has enriched US elites, but it hasn’t stopped them from trying to cripple China or blocking China’s telecom industry; similarly, trade with Australia which actually stopped Australia from experiencing the GFC like its Western counterparts (with the exception of Canada) didn’t prevent ungrateful Australians from accepting a US base on Australian soil as a bulwark for containing China.

    There could be massive potential for Sino-US scientific cooperation but given the nature of the USG actively trying to persecute Chinese scientists and accusing Chinese people without proof mind you, as spies, it’s an understatement to say that there’s a long way to go. In fact, there is no way to go, if the US keeps up this sort of behaviour.

  4. hezudao
    March 31st, 2013 at 01:33 | #4

    Good analysis. Lets not forget they also share a long land border with each other. Having a large powerful neighbor is always a factor.

  5. March 31st, 2013 at 09:51 | #5

    The relationship between Russia & China proves the reverse can be true as well – you don’t need to grow trade in order to generate goodwill and trust. Much of the progress in the Sino-Soviet detente (which started around 1982), followed by Sino-Russian rapprochement after ’92, was made in the absence of rapidly growing trade.

  6. Zack
    April 1st, 2013 at 07:41 | #6

    a good article on the Sino-Russian relationship given the context of the pivot

    the fact that the russians have agreed to sell the new sukhoi aircraft knowing the Chinese will reverse engineer the engines is significant, just as putin’s rejection of obama’s apparent ‘favour’ of not setting up ABM batteries in poland-rather, it’s more of a delay than anything else.

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