For all the noise that the so-called Sino-Russian axis is making amongst Western commentators, voices are growing within Russia that seems to antagonise China. The latest report by The Moscow Times captures Russia’s eagerness to dump China. But Moscow cannot dump Beijing, because the West has antagonised it and the Kremlin doesn’t have anyone to fall back upon if it really decides to throw China under the bus.
A Sino-Russian axis doesn’t benefit anyone except China. It makes China an even bigger giant for the free world. As for Russia, the Kremlin understands that China is an unreliable partner at the best and an enemy in disguise at the worst. If The Moscow Times can understand the deep fault lines within the Russia-China axis, then the Putin administration would also not be clueless about these factors.
The West now has two choices- either to abandon Russia, forcing the Kremlin to live in an undesirable bond with China or seek rapprochement with Russia and offer rewards for decoupling away from China.
Those who believe that Russia and China are the best of friends don’t really understand that the ostensible sense of camaraderie between Beijing and Moscow is itself a consequence of the friction between Russia and the Western world. It was only after the West imposed severe sanctions on Moscow in the aftermath of the Ukrainian Crisis in 2014 that Putin started warming up to China and also expanded trade with the Communist nation.
Till 2014, Russia-EU relations were growing comfortably. But a Merkel led EU decided to abandon Moscow. Initially, Russia too might have thought that it can easily make up for what it lost in the EU, by forging closer ties with Beijing.
But around six years into his apparent friendship with the Chinese President Xi Jinping, Putin would have realised that China is a much more treacherous customer to deal with. Russia and China’s geopolitical interests simply do not converge. China, for instance, refuses to recognise Abkhazia or South Ossetia as independent nations. Worse still, Beijing still recognises Crimea as a part of Ukraine.
On the other hand, Russia hasn’t lent any support or China’s absurd claims over the maritime territory of Southeast Asian Nations in the South China Sea. Russia doesn’t want to get involved in China’s many territorial conflicts, and then Putin also considers the ASEAN as an important partner in his bid to revive the Russian economy.
Even more contentious are the bilateral conflicts that China and Russia could face shortly. Moscow is already growing insecure about a possible Chinese demographic expansion in the Russian Far East. Also, hard-line elements within the Xi Jinping administration have been trying to stake a claim upon the Russian Far East’s Capital city, Vladivostok.
Moreover, Beijing has been trying to eat into Russia’s post-Soviet space like Central Asia and Eastern Europe. Putin, of course, also has to handle the menace of China’s growing interest in the melting Arctic region which could open up to trading and shipping activity a few decades down the line.
But at the end of the day, Putin simply cannot dump China even if he wants to. With the EU and the rest of the Western World constantly pushing sanctions on the Russian economy, Moscow has become way too dependent on an exploitative China. Also, Russia must have noticed how China used economic sanctions and tariffs to hound Australia after the Scott Morrison government decided to take on the paper dragon.
Canberra could afford to snub Beijing because it had partners like the QUAD to rely upon in response to the Chinese reprisals. But what does Russia have? A Merkel-dominated EU that keeps spewing venom against Moscow and an uncertain US policy with Biden’s anti-Russia rhetoric along with suspense over who will come at the helm of affairs in the White House.
A sudden downfall of the Sino-Russian axis is the secret to a more stable world order. But it is not going to happen on its own. It is now up to the West to win over Russia and take on China with even greater vigour.