Russia’s war in Ukraine has cast a spotlight on the China-Russia relationship. On February 4, 2022, just weeks before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, President Xi Jinping and President Vladimir Putin met and issued a historic joint statement which stated that China-Russia bilateral relationship has “no limits” and that “there are no ‘forbidden’ areas of cooperation” between them.
The China-Russia have indeed significantly strengthened their relationship in recent years. Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin enjoy close working relations, which drives high-level cooperation between the two. The two sides also cooperate based on shared threat perceptions that the United States and its allies seek to encircle and undermine them. Moreover, close military ties and complementary economic dynamics help cement their relationship.
Notwithstanding recent improvements in relations, there is still a great deal of strategic mistrust between Beijing and Moscow. The tumultuous past between the two nations, during which a weaker China was exploited by the more strong Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, contributes to Chinese strategic mistrust. For its part, Russia’s concerns that an increasingly powerful China may infringe on its interests and exploit its weaknesses are fueled by permanent structural reasons, particularly geographical. Moscow’s worries are made worse by a geopolitical mindset that retains deep-seated great power aspirations and rankles at being China’s junior partner.
China and Russia also face competitive dynamics in their shared backyard of Central Asia, which could become a source of tensions in the future. Moscow remains influential in the five former Soviet states of Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan) and it considers the region to be within its “privileged sphere of influence.” Russia has thus far been willing to accept China’s activities there, for example, by cooperating with Beijing in the Chinese-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization and by not opposing China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) ambitions. Russia currently even reaps some benefits out of China’s presence in the region: China’s considerable economic engagement there helps to facilitate regional stability and development allowing Russia to focus more on shaping military and security dynamics.
However, China is stepping up its security and economic footprint in Central Asia in ways that may increasingly be perceived through a competitive lens by Moscow.
Finally, Russia is wary of Chinese ambitions in the Arctic, where Moscow has significant interests. Approximately one-fifth of Russia’s expansive territory is located within the Arctic Circle. This area encompasses more than 24,000 km of shoreline and is home to some 2.5 million people. Under Vladimir Putin, Russia has made the Arctic a key region of focus, including reviving Russia’s military presence there. In recent years, Russia has refurbished 50 previously closed Soviet-era military posts, including 13 air bases, 10 radar stations, 20 border outposts, and 10 integrated emergency rescue stations.
Despite lacking territory in the arctic, China has pushed to establish itself as a “near-Arctic state,” and in a 2018 White paper on the arctic, China put forward a vision for building a “Polar Silk Road” to complement the broader BRI. China and Russia have so far cooperated on energy and infrastructure projects in the region, but there have been considerable setbacks too. Russia initially opposed allowing China onto the multilateral Arctic Council as an observer, and it continues to be suspicious of Beijing’s strategic goals in the region.
Thus, the China-Russia relationship is complex and comes with costs for both sides. Leaders in Beijing and Moscow appear to have assessed for now that the benefits outweigh the costs, but that calculus could change and there are already signs of it.
Coming to the Russia-Ukaraine war, recently, according to the Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Chinese State Councilor Wang Yi did not discuss Beijing’s yet-to-be-unveiled peace proposal for the ongoing conflict between Moscow and Kyiv. This was shocking as China had always tried to act as a big brother in the Russia-China relationship and through its mediation process, wanted to cement its diplomatic place in Europe.
Wang first mentioned his “peace proposal” at the Munich Security Conference last week. “We will put forth China’s position on the political settlement of the Ukraine crisis,” the diplomat announced. Wang warned that he knew that “some forces might not want to see peace talks materialize” without naming any party in particular.
Russia suddenly saying that they did not discuss any Chinese peace proposal is significant. It indicates that Russia is wary of China’s peace plan. So why are the Russians wary of the Chinese peace plan? All this indicates just the glimpses of the broader fight playing out in Europe between Russia and China.
Russia’s growing stature;
The Russo-Ukraine war has unmasked the great dependence of European nations on Moscow. Russia is the biggest supplier of natural gas to Europe, which depends on the former for nearly 40% of its natural gas requirements.
Europe’s dependence on Russia was put into perspective in late 2021 when Russia lessened its gas supplies to Europe in the wake of the deepening Ukraine crisis. This led to the energy watchdog International Energy Agency, accusing Russia of undermining Europe’s energy security. But this incident made clear to the world how dependent Europe was on Russia’s energy.
That may be precisely why there hasn’t been enough backing from the West for Ukraine’s defence against Russian aggression.
Moreover, the countries that remained silent on the issue of the Russia-Ukraine war unlike their counterparts, emerged as a ray of hope for the entire Europe. While the mindless lot of European countries led by Germany and the UK were busy exacerbating their self-made crisis by taking an anti-Russia stance, Spain, Netherlands and Greece secured their nation’s interests first. While the other countries were scrambling to find alternatives to Russian energy, Spain and countries of the Balkans like Bulgaria kept on sourcing their supplies from Russia and gained immensely.
Italy, one of Europe’s powerful countries, went against the likes of Germany and France by sending back migrants sent to its coast.
On the economic front, Washington Post in its recent study has revealed some mind-boggling figures about Russia’s war spoils in Ukraine. As per the analysis, Russia now controls Ukraine’s key natural resources, including energy and mineral deposits. Based on the Washington Post’s review of 2,209 deposits, Moscow controls 63% of Ukraine’s coal, 11% of its oil, 20% of its natural gas, 42% of its metals, and 33% of its rare earth, including key minerals like lithium.
The conclusion is clear. Russia has gained immensely in the Russia-Ukraine war in terms of its stature and its power is only rising in Europe.
China’s diminish role:
On the other hand, the expanding footprints of Russia have been coupled with a period of deteriorating Sino-European relations.
In the past several months, the China-EU relationship has deteriorated to its lowest point since 1989. After the two sides exchanged sanctions over the Xinjiang issue, political disputes are jeopardizing the fate of the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment, which was celebrated by Chinese and European leaders just a few months ago and is seen as an important milestone in China-Russia relationship.
A few months ago, the European Parliament made the decision to halt the ratification of the agreement, declaring that it will not do so unless China lifts the sanctions it has placed on persons and Organisations in Europe, including a number of European Parliament members. The choice was not made in a vacuum. Both the public and political figures in Europe now hold increasingly unfavourable views of China. Leading European officials have acknowledged that the two economic giants have “fundamental divergences,” and a Pew survey reveals that negative attitudes towards China have risen to record levels in many European nations. Although China and the EU are still promoting collaboration on issues like climate change, this hardly prevents China-Russia relationship from deteriorating further.
China’s reputation around the world, which had been favourable or at least neutral for the previous 20 years, has drastically declined. Leading democracies like the United States and Japan, with whom China already had tense relations, as well as developing nations in Africa, Asia, and Eastern Europe have all seen this degradation. During the 1990s and the late 2010s, China had good relations with the nations in these areas but it has currently had the worst reputation in several parts of the world in many years.
Since Deng Xiaoping’s post-Tiananmen directive that China should appear humble and bide its time, China has moved from more modest diplomacy to its current style of assertive, frequently combative diplomacy. This new diplomatic approach, combined with the growing use of state economic coercion against countries, foreign powers and domestic Chinese multinationals, certainly plays a central role in rising negative sentiments.
Beijing’s rising authoritarianism, its current isolation from the world, and its increasingly monomaniacal focus on Xi Jinping’s campaign to restructure China’s economy, and pursue zero COVID barbarically, have also hurt China’s image.
Meanwhile, China’s zero-COVID policy has all but shut off its overseas trade and is undermining its soft power initiatives. Several of the foreign visitor and student programmes that were formerly crucial in improving its reputation abroad, particularly in developing nations, have been scaled back. A dramatic decline in Chinese tourists travelling abroad has also occurred, which is concerning because they had been a crucial source of international social contact.
So, contrary to popular belief, Russia and China do not have a flourishing, permanent friendship. Instead, both of these major nations continue to have strong mistrust for one another. The recent completion between Moscow and Beijing is being played out in Europe and all pieces of evidence prove the fact that Russia still holds a considerable strategic advantage over Beijing in the region.