Russia-China: An Asymmetric Relationship

Following Russia’s invasion and illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, Western sanctions have forced the Kremlin to seek to strengthen its ties with China. But things do not appear to be going Vladimir Putin’s way, as the relationship is becoming increasingly asymmetric, with China clearly being the dominant player, writes Gary Cartwright.

In the UN Security Council, China and Russia, both veto wielding members, traditionally rely upon one another’s support in order to frustrate the West. In response to the Russian invasions of Georgia (2008) and Crimea, however, China has displayed behaviour out of character with the norm.

Instead of voting against a draft Security Council resolution on the Georgian invasion, China abstained, subsequently refusing to recognise the status of the so-called independent states of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The same occurred following the annexation of Crimea, with China refusing to recognise Russia’s claim to sovereignty over the territory.

Even more interesting, whilst China criticised the resulting Western sanctions, Chinese commercial banks have shown a reluctance to provide funding for Russian projects targeted by those sanctions in order to avoid the risk of being barred from Western markets. The EU and the USA are China’s main trading partners, whilst Russia is just a minor economic player. 

In fact, between 2013 to 2016, trade between Russia and China actually fell. Oil price decline hit Russia’s export income considerably, while the depreciation of the rouble adversely affected Russian purchasing power, leading to a strong drop in imports of manufactured goods from China. Russia’s major export asset, oil, is not as important to China as it is to the EU: China has a far more diverse range of suppliers to choose from.

Chinese loans to the ‘non-financial and household’ sector have all but dried up. Steadily increasing in the years leading up to 2015 to $14.9 billion, funding fell to a relatively paltry $0.7 billion in 2016.

In an international geo-political context, Russia and China appear to be heading in two different directions.

Russia, expelled from the G8 as a direct result of its actions in Ukraine, is relying on its inward looking Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). China, in the meantime, is pursuing development of its highly ambitious Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB), building strong political, economic, and logistical links with the West. Indeed, a key hub for SREB is Ukraine, and the two countries are quietly increasing their bi-lateral trade.

Whilst Russia has accepted the reality of the situation and and is seeking ways of integrating EEU and SREB, many observers consider the two to be mutually incompatible.

China’s concentration on peaceful and mutually beneficial trade as a means towards economic development, conducted under the rule of international law, sits at complete odds with Russia’s unpredictable and often brutal use of so-called ‘hard power’, its ‘zero-sum’ approach to foreign relations, and lack of respect for the sovereignty of any nation but itself. 

It is this apparent inability to see the world through anything other than blinkered eyes that has led to a deep mistrust of Chinese policy, particularly with regard to the sparsely populated and economically backward Russian Far East (RFE). 

China is heavily populated, and has a pressing need for, amongst other things, drinking water. China is running dry.

The RFE has fresh water supplies in abundance, and Russia is nervously eyeing Chinese behaviour in the region.

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This mistrust has been one of the reasons for reluctance to supply China with state of the art military equipment - China has a history of ‘reverse engineering’ Russian hardware and then selling it abroad at prices that undercut the Russians.

Now, however, with few other options, Russia is selling the crown jewels: S-400 anti-aircraft missile systems, Sukhoi SU-35 fighter jets.

In defence, as in the many other areas in which Sino-Russian cooperation has expanded in recent years, and especially since the imposition of Western sanctions, China has benefitted disproportionally. Russia has been surprised to find itself becoming little more than Beijing’s lap-dog.

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Gary Cartwright

Gary Cartwright

Gary Cartwright is publishing editor of EU Today. 

An experienced journalist and published author, he specialises in environment, energy, and defence.

He also has more than 10 years experience of working as a staff member in the EU institutions, working with political groups and MEPs in various policy areas.

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