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Russia and China; Friendly Competition and Strategic Goals

The relations between the People’s republic of China and Russia have rapidly accelerated over the last decade. Doubling of trade exchange between the two countries, signing significant agreements in economic, energy, military, space and other areas are the main indexes of expansion of cooperation between China and Russia.
May 2021
Ali Akbar Jokar

The relations between the People’s republic of China and Russia have rapidly accelerated over the last decade. Doubling of trade exchange between the two countries, signing significant agreements in economic, energy, military, space and other areas are the main indexes of expansion of cooperation between China and Russia. Also, the political positions of the two countries on main international and regional political issues have been in line with or close to each other, and Moscow and Beijing have adopted similar positions in opposition to the American liberal order and the unipolar system. Based on the plans and targets set by Moscow and Beijing, it is expected that expansion of mutual cooperation will continue and scale up quantitatively and qualitatively. Now the question is to what extent the expansion of ties between China and Russia is influenced by the geopolitical needs of the two countries and what will be its impact on the international system?

At first glance, what is going on in the China-Russia relations is a natural product of the geography and high capacities of the two countries which justifies establishing a multifaceted and high-level relation between the two countries for using these capacities. China and Russia rank first in population and land area respectively in the world, sharing 4374 kilometers of common border. With $23 trillion dollars of GDP (based on PPP), China is world’s biggest economy, with industrial and technological advantages, that with adopting a pragmatic policy has not missed out on any opportunity for strengthening ties with other countries like Russia. Russia too, with $4.2 trillion dollars of GDP (based on PPP), has tried to utilize its special advantage in energy gas and oil areas, as well as military, and maximize its gains in its relations with other countries, including China. Therefore, at first glance, the expansion of ties between China and Russia is considered a natural issue which is aimed at using each other’s capacities to serve mutual interests. But the main feature of China-Russia ties is its proportionate expansion in economic, political, international, military and security areas, a thing that has no example in the two countries’ relations with the west.

 A cursory glance at the course of China-Russia relations over the last two decades shows comprehensive growth of ties on various dimensions. After the two countries agreed to upgrade their ties to “Strategic Partnership of Coordination”, in 1996, signing “Good Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation” pact in 2001 was a turning point of mutual ties at the advent of the new century. Over the course of the last two decades the two countries have held regular talks and exhibited a high level of understanding about bilateral and international political issues. In the economic area, trade cooperation of the two countries has constantly increased, except for  short periods; so that their trade exchange of $10 billion in 2001 reached $104 billion in 2020. Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, the presidents of Russia and China, set a target of $200 billion target for their trade at the June 2019 meeting, pointing to the pivotal status of economy in their mutual ties they stated:” Trade and economic cooperation, as one main pillar of our ties, is of significant importance for joint development and revival of China and Russia. We enjoy a high level of unprecedented trust and cooperation.” In July 2020, sending a message to the participants at “Negotiations of the United Russia Party and the Communist Party of China”, Putin praised the mutual relations and stated “ China and Russia relations have reached an unprecedented level and rightly are considered as an example of intergovernmental cooperation in today’s world.”

Cooperation in the energy sector is another important characteristic of China-Russia relations, the importance of which, strategically and geopolitically, is no less than their economic worth. China, as the biggest consumer of energy, and Russia as the biggest exporter of oil and gas combined, have ratified important agreements in this sector, which have connected the two countries’ destiny more than ever to each other. While China imported only 2% of its oil from Russia in 2000, with the start of oil exports through the Eastern Siberia–Pacific Ocean Oil Pipeline, Russia became the main exporter of oil to China in 2015. Also in the gas sector, the biggest gas contract was signed in Beijing between the two countries in 2014, with the presence of Putin and Xi Jinping, between the Russian Gazprom company and the China National Petroleum Corporation to transfer gas to China through the Power of Siberia Gas Pipeline. The value of this contract is $400 billion and is for 30 years. In 2013, the China National Petroleum Corporation purchased 20% of the shares of the $27 billion Yamal LNG venture which was supervised by the Russian Novatek company and ,in 2019 , the Russian and Chinese sides agreed on a $21 billion LNG joint venture named Arctic 2. Totally, China-Russia cooperation in the oil and gas sector, including purchase, partnership and investment, has strengthened the grounds for their cooperation in other sectors, as well as securing both countries’ economic needs.

Cooperation in military and security areas is another part of China-Russia cooperation during recent years and arms trade has been the main index of their relations in the mid-2000s.between the years 2001 and 2009, the value of military cooperation of Russia with China reached over $16 billion. In recent years, Moscow has sold advanced weapons, including Su-35 fighter jets, helicopters and aircraft engines to Beijing. In 2016, Russia and China signed agreements in military-technical areas worth of $3 billion.  As quoted by Alexander Scherbinin, the Deputy CEO of Russian state arms export agency Rosoboronexport, the mutual military-technical between Russia and China is an annual worth of several billion dollars; and the two countries are expanding military-technical cooperation in new areas such as advanced technologies. Cooperation in space such as installing a space station on the Moon, cooperation in the Arctic are other areas for collaboration between the two countries. Also in the military sector, the two countries have held joint military drills in the South China Sea to the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, which are considerable, considering the area of operation. Holding joint military drills in Central Asia in the form of the Shang Hai Cooperation Organization along with the other member states, is another index of China-Russia military cooperation.

 Another characteristic of China-Russia ties is coordination of positions on main international and regional issues which distinguishes their relations from other world powers.  Opposition to the American liberal system, opposition to unilateral western and American sanctions against countries, the North Korea, Syria, Afghanistan and Belarus issues, Persian Gulf security, the JCPOA agreement and main international issues such as climate, disarmament and other issues are cases on which the two countries have common views. In cases like the Ukrainian and South China Sea, while the two countries maintain relations with the countries of interest, have their own reservations and have acted in a way that the totality of mutual coordination of positions has not been compromised. With regard to the role of international organizations, especially the UNSC, the two countries’ positions have been based on strengthening this institution and opposing west, and especially the US, unilateral measures.

 

China and Russia Relations with the West

 

Contrary to the china- Russia ties which have grown homogenously on various political, economic, cultural, military and security dimensions, their relations with their European and American partners have not been adequately balanced in various areas and the economic and trade parts of them are outstanding, particularly as regards China. The volume of China’s trade exchange with the European and American partners is far more than that with Russia and Russia’s trade exchange with Europe is two times bigger than with China. According to reported statistics, the volumes of trade exchange of China and Russia with the EU in 2020 have been 585 and 175 billion euros respectively ( about $710 and $210 billion respectively), which in both cases is much higher compared with the China-Russia trade exchange with each other. Regarding trade ties with the US, the matter is to some extent different. China and Russia’s trade with the US in 2020 was $565 and $38 billion respectively, that of China with the US being five times that with Russia. In analyzing the above statistics and figures, the point that has to be made is the different trend of trade and economic cooperation than the political and international cooperation. For example, although one of China’s tool of power is its foreign economic relations with Europe and America, but both sides disagree on a range of political and international issues and the west’s concern as to China’s increasing power is visible. The US trade war against China in 2018, and imposing some human rights sanctions on the Chinese officials, as well as the US military presence in the South China Sea, and backing Taiwan are among the measures taken to contain China. The list of grievances is much longer when it comes to Russia, and despite economic cooperation there are more serious political barriers on both sides’ ways.

But in regard to China and Russia, things are different. Both countries, despite some concerns and differences of opinion in cases like China’s economic performance in far east Russia, competition in Central Asia, Chinese reverse-engineering of Russian military industries, and the imbalanced mutual trade, both have similar positions on main international political and security issues. One main concern of both countries is west’s interference in their domestic affairs. The Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, pointed to this matter at his annual meeting with the media in March and with regard to expanding strategic cooperation with Russia stated:” China and Russia will jointly fight the political and corona viruses. Russia and China are a solid bastion for securing global stability. Moscow and Beijing are against color revolutions and interference in other countries’ affairs. We are ready to counter any effort to distort realities.” Mr. Wang Yi’s positions were completed by Sergey Labrov during his trip to china on 22 March of this year:” For us, China is a real strategic partner and a like-minded friend. our cooperation on the international stage will have a stabilizing effect on the regional and global situation. We want the international relations to be fair, democratic and capable of securing stability.” Also in a joint statement of both foreign ministers, they stressed the centrality of the United Nations and asked all countries to abide by the principles of open and non-ideological multilaterism.

 

Conclusion:

Over recent years China and Russia have strengthened international and political-security cooperation along with expansion of bilateral and economic cooperation and have tried to exhibit maximum coordination and commonality of positions on main international issues. What has neared Russia and China’s political stances in recent years is their common view toward the international order and opposition to the western and American liberal order. West’s behavior of throwing obstacles in the way of China and Russia, such as interfering in their domestic affairs, military and security presence in the vital areas of interests of the two countries in the South China Sea and surrounding countries near Russia , trade war with China and imposition of wide-ranging sanctions against Russia, have ever the more neared Moscow and Beijing together to strengthen their strategic relations. However, considering the importance of trade ties with the west for beefing up and continuing their economic growth, the Russian and Chinese officials are constantly seeking out ways to reduce tensions with Europe and America and trying to find common grounds for dialogue and understanding.                 

 Aliakbar Jokar

(The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the IPIS)     

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