Examining the Russia-China axis
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What will be the relationship between Russia and China vis-a-vis developments in Ukraine? How has their alliance grown over the past years?

February 23, 2022 10:30 am | Updated 10:30 am IST

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing, China on February 4, 2022.

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing, China on February 4, 2022. | Photo Credit: VIA REUTERS

The story so far: Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to China this month, as well as the Ukraine crisis, have turned the spotlight on Russia’s relations with China. Many in the west have blamed the Russia-China axis for emboldening Moscow’s recent moves and ensuring it will not be completely isolated in the face of western sanctions. At the same time, Beijing has found itself walking a tightrope in its response and has so far stopped short of endorsing Russia’s actions. Does the Russia-China relationship, for all its undeniable closeness, have its limits?

What explains the current state of Russia-China relations?

Last year, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov described relations as the “best in their entire history”. This wasn’t hyperbole, he was keen to underline, but a “a well-deserved and fair assessment.” Presidents Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping have met 38 times (in person and virtually) since 2013. Their last meeting, in Beijing in early February where Mr. Putin was attending the opening of the Winter Olympics, produced an ambitious and sweeping joint statement, as well as a number of energy deals, that underlined the strategic, ideological, and commercial impulses driving the relationship.

On the strategic front, the statement said “new inter-State relations between Russia and China are superior to political and military alliances of the Cold War era.” It added that the relationship “has no limits” and “there are no forbidden areas of cooperation”. It underlined how far ties had come between two neighbours that have had, to put it mildly, up-and-downs. For the new People’s Republic of China, the Soviet Union was the most important source of financial and technological support. But the early honeymoon period was followed by the Sino-Soviet split over ideology as well as a border dispute. After the collapse of the Soviet Union — an event that China’s Communist Party leadership continues to study with great interest — both neighbours worked to settle their border. Booming trade ties then followed.

The biggest factor behind their current closeness is their shared discomfort with the U.S. and its allies. The joint statement this month emphasised that point, with China supporting Russia in “opposing further enlargement of NATO and calling on the North Atlantic Alliance to abandon its ideological cold war approaches” and Russia echoing China’s opposition to “the formation of closed bloc structures and opposing camps in the Asia-Pacific region and the negative impact of the United States' Indo-Pacific strategy.” China, for its part, said it was “sympathetic to and supports the proposals put forward by the Russian Federation to create long-term legally binding security guarantees in Europe”. Russia returned the favour, saying it “reaffirms support for the One-China principle, confirms that Taiwan is an inalienable part of China, and opposes any forms of independence of Taiwan.” In short, both have the other’s backs on key strategic issues.

This has been reflected in growing military closeness. China in 2014 became the first foreign buyer of the S-400 missile defence system, which India has also purchased (although there have been reported delays in delivery for reasons unknown). Their joint exercises have also grown in scope. Last year, a third "joint strategic air patrol” over the East China Sea was described by Chinese military commentator Song Zhongping as “a practical action to warn some countries outside the region and some neighbouring countries, like AUKUS and Quad, not to stir up trouble.” There is also the ideological binding glue in shared opposition to what both countries described this month as the west’s “attempts to impose their own democratic standards on other countries” and “interference” by the west on human rights issues.

Commercial ties have also been growing. Two-way trade last year was up 35% to $147 billion, driven largely by Chinese energy imports. Russia is China’s largest source of energy imports and second largest source of crude oil, the Communist Party-run Global Times reported in January, with energy set to account for 35% of trade in 2022. China has been Russia’s biggest trading partner for 12 consecutive years and accounts for close to 20% of Russia’s total foreign trade (Russia, on the other hand, accounts for 2% of China’s trade). But Russia is, for China, a key market for project contracts besides energy supplies.

Chinese companies signed construction project deals worth $5 billion last year — for the third straight year — according to China’s Ministry of Commerce.

How has China responded to the Ukraine crisis?

Given these deep trade linkages, China does not want instability (or, for that matter, a spurt in energy prices). That was the message from Foreign Minister Wang Yi on February 19, when he told the security conference in Munich that “the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of all countries should be respected and safeguarded.” “This is a basic norm of international relations that embodies the purposes of the UN Charter,” he said. “It is also the consistent, principled position of China. And that applies equally to Ukraine.”

Mr. Wang also outlined China’s preferred resolution to the current crisis, which, he said, was a diplomatic solution and a return to the Minsk agreement. Only two days later, that agreement was left in tatters after President Putin ordered troops into two rebel-controlled areas (he called them “peacekeepers”) and decided to recognise the “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk. That, in of itself, showed China’s limited influence. Mr. Putin did, however, wait for the Winter Olympics to conclude on February 20 out of possible deference to Chinese sensitivities before making his move.

What are the implications for India and the rest of the world?

China has repeatedly underlined that it is sympathetic to Russia’s concerns on NATO, which mirror its own opposition to America’s allies in the Indo-Pacific (Chinese strategists have repeatedly called the Quad an “Asian NATO”, a label which its members reject).

On the possibility of Russia now coming under heavy sanctions, the Global Times said this week that “under this backdrop, close cooperation between China and Russia on energy, trade, finance and science and technology is all the more important.” “As strategic back-to-back fraternal partners, China is obliged to bolster Russia in time of need,” the newspaper said. “And, thanks to consistent support from China, the Russian economy has become increasingly resilient following years of sanctions imposed by the U.S. and other Western developed countries. A strong economy will back up Moscow to deflect ruthless economic coercion from the U.S..” Yet China’s capacities to do so, given its own domestic economic challenges, are in truth limited.

Strategists in the west and in India have often questioned the robustness of the relationship as well as Russia’s possible unease at being the “junior partner” and increasingly beholden to Chinese interests. But are there any signs of a divide that can be exploited (as Nixon did five decades ago)?

The evidence suggests no, and at least in the near-term, New Delhi should expect Sino-Russian closeness to continue, which poses its own challenges for India and how it navigates the three-way dynamic amid the worst period in relations with China in more than three decades, even as Russia remains a key defence partner.

This is not, however, an entirely new situation, as the historian Srinath Raghavan reminds us, on how the Soviet Union responded to China’s attack on India in 1962. “The Chinese had sounded out the Russians,” he writes in his book The Most Dangerous Place: A History of the United States in South Asia, “and got a wink and a nod from Nikita Khrushchev.”

THE GIST
Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov described current relations between Russia and China as the “best in their entire history”. The biggest factor behind their current closeness is their shared discomfort with the U.S. and its allies. This has been reflected in their growing military closeness as well as their two way trade. China in 2014 became the first foreign buyer of Russia’s S-400 missile defence system. Their joint exercises have also grown in scope. Commercial trade was up 35% to $147 billion, driven largely by Chinese energy imports. China has been Russia’s biggest trading partner for 12 consecutive years and accounts for close to 20% of Russia’s total foreign trade (Russia, on the other hand, accounts for 2% of China’s trade).
On Ukraine, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi on February 19, told the security conference in Munich that “the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of all countries should be respected and safeguarded.” “It is also the consistent, principled position of China. And that applies equally to Ukraine,” he added
In light of the growing Sino-Russian closeness, India should learn how to navigate the three-way dynamic amid the worst period in relations with China in more than three decades, even as Russia remains a key defence partner.

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