It had been two years since Russian President Putin had met Chinese President Xi Jinping. That drought got over when they met on the sidelines of the opening ceremony of the 2022 Beijing Olympics on 4th February. Most observers thought that the two leaders would intensify their anti-Western agenda. No such thing happened overtly. If that is the case, why has Russia reduced its force level to a strength never seen since 1922 at China and Mongolia borders? Is there a secret pact between Putin and Xi Jinping?
If we leave aside speculation and a tacit agreement, China has not been very forthcoming in its support. China was expected to assist Russia economically so that it withstands Western sanctions in the present state, as well as when it invades Ukraine. It was also expected that they would give joint statements on Ukraine and Taiwan, indicating a two-front conflict that will see China and Russia moving against their targets. However, no such statement came out. Finally, Putin didn’t achieve much and left Beijing with just a 30-year energy deal that will take a few years to fructify.
China limited its support to Russia regarding NATO’s security guarantees with just a mention in the statement. The Chinese dilly-dallying indicates that China doesn’t want to strain its relations with Europe any further. Putin will understand this aspect sooner or later if he hasn’t already grasped it.
What Is At Stake For China And Russia
Russia’s economic relationship with China has grown almost four-fold in the last decade. Today bilateral trade stood at $146 billion. Russia expects it to grow to $200 billion by 2024. China imports mainly oil and natural gas while exporting finished goods to Russia. Russia supports the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) by granting a natural gas pipeline from Siberia to China. It is noteworthy that Russia-US trade is nothing substantial, but Russia-EU trade already stands at $220 billion. NATO members account for 70 percent of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in Russia. Similarly, China’s trade with the EU-Britain combine is ten times the trade it has with Russia.
Are both nations ready to doom that economic opportunity? Experts point to Europe’s energy dependence on Russia. However, that is half the picture. Russia also depends on the oil revenue from the European Union, which is nearly 40 percent of Russian budgeted revenue. A tricky question that stares at Russia and China is that, can they afford the misadventure?
The $11 billion Russia-Germany Nord Stream II pipeline will be the first casualty of the post-war era. Russia is already feeling the pinch of the existing US and European sanctions. China is no better. It is reeling under the slowed-down economy, food shortages, exploding debt to GDP ratio, and a declining population (the Chinese population is set to decrease by 60 percent in next 45 years), and it is in no position to upset the European Union.
The Relationship Of Desperation
China and Russia are known to scratch each other’s back in the United Nations and Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). China also needs Russian oil and gas; however, the relationship is need-based. If the need goes, so does the relationship. Both the leaders know that they have offended too many nations and bitten more than they can chew.
It is always challenging for two large neighbors, vying for their sphere of influence, to get along without differences. China and Russia also have their friction points, and the opposing forces can exploit them. In China, there have been marathon brainstorming sessions to assess what is there for China if Russia invades Ukraine. The experts couldn’t find any merit in war thousands of miles away at the cost of all we have discussed.
In addition to the ongoing Winter Olympics, China already has enough on its plate. Continuous tension and strained relations with Australia, India, Japan, and the US; internal struggle in Xinjiang, Tibet, and Hong Kong; hawkish stand with Taiwan and the South China Sea nations. Therefore, it downplayed the Xi-Putin meeting and hardly gave any coverage in the mainstream media. Continued expansion of NATO finds mentioned in one paragraph. There was no mention of ‘roll back NATO from existing alliances’ and ‘Ukraine.’ Since China-Russia are fair-weather friends, one may not go to war just because the other does; therefore, even alliance word doesn’t get mentioned. Later, the Chinese foreign ministry, in its briefings and television coverage, even skipped the word ‘NATO’.
Nineteen European nations are onboard Xi’s pet project, BRI. Any further deterioration in the relationship may derail the project. The Chinese leadership is well aware of how much it can nudge the European Union. China witnessed a strong rally in support of Lithuania from all member states in the recent past. From time to time, Xi himself steps in to soothe the relationship if he feels that some official has crossed the line. China’s support to Russia on the Ukraine issue is symbolic and in no way an approval for war.
China is also aware that any overt support to Russia would attract sanctions from the United States and the West. The US has already sanctioned 175 Chinese tech companies. The Chinese experts have cautioned the government about the adverse effects of restrictions on technology transfer.
The present Chinese economic numbers are the worst in the last four decades. A war in Europe would further adversely affect the situation. CCP’s 20th National Congress is planned for October 2022. This event is personally significant for Xi Jinping. The Congress would decide on the fate of Xi’s third term as the President of China. While Xi is not leaving any stone unturned to retain that post, his detractors sharpen their knives. Therefore, he is not going to sacrifice his ambition for the sake of Russia.
All Is Not Well
While China has its issues, Russians also have their concerns, and China is in no mood to address those concerns. The most significant contentious point is Central Asia. Russia strives to maintain primacy and military influence in the region. It is watching Chinese economic influence and the progress of BRI in the region with Hawk-eye, but their main concerns are related to how diplomats and PLA plan to make inroads into this region. If Chinese leadership is intelligent and has taken their lessons from the Ukraine crisis, they should know interfering in the Russian sphere of influence is a big no-no.
Another area of Russian concern is the Arctic. The region’s natural resources are a goldmine for Russia, but it needs Chinese money power to continue the exploration. Even though Russia controls the logistics part of this Polar Silk Road, it remains suspicious of future Chinese plans in the region.
Russia and China have also been noncommittal to each other’s territorial claims. Russia maintains neutrality in the South China Sea and continues its explorations for Vietnam. China returns the favor and doesn’t come out clearly on its stand on Crimea.
The predatory Chinese economic practices in the far east make Russia extremely unhappy. China has a huge demand for timber and other natural resources that are smuggled from this resource-rich region. The Chinese processing factories on the Chinese side of the border leave Russia high and dry without gaining any economic or employment benefits.
Many Indian analysts show anxiety over the Russia-China bonhomie. Their concerns are valid, but the reasons are not. India need not worry but rather be vigilant so that the fast-changing geopolitical vista doesn’t spring surprises.
From India’s perspective, the Ukraine crisis presents an opportunity to assess the Russia-China bonding that was always need-based.
Finally, when should India start worrying? The day Putin and Xi get challenged internally (and that day is not far, especially for Xi). Because both leaders will not give up their coveted posts easily and may come together to put up a fight that will endanger every neighbour.
“There is a difference between, when a nation raises questions with you, and questions you. Choose your strategic partners wisely” ~ Insightful Geopolitics
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of Chanakya Forum. All information provided in this article including timeliness, completeness, accuracy, suitability or validity of information referenced therein, is the sole responsibility of the author. www.chanakyaforum.com does not assume any responsibility for the same.
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Narinder Pal Singh Hora