Examining the Russia-China axis

  • IASbaba
  • February 23, 2022
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  • GS-2: Effect of policies and politics of developed and developing countries on India’s interests.

Examining the Russia-China axis

Context: Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to China 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. 

What explains the current state of Russia-China relations?

  • Last year, Russia’s Foreign Minister described relations as the “best in their entire history”
  • The last Xi-Putin meeting during Winter Olympics in China, 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”.
  • 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” 
    • Russia echoed 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 also 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. Chin views these exercises as the 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 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, 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.

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 Chinese Foreign Minister 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 and that applies equally to Ukraine.” 
  • China also outlined its preferred resolution to the current crisis – diplomatic solution and a return to the Minsk agreement. 
    • Only two days later, that agreement was broken 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.

How is China’s actions helping Russia?

  • 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, close cooperation between China and Russia on energy, trade, finance and science and technology is all the more important. 
  • A strong economic cooperation with China will back up Russia to deflect ruthless economic coercion from the U.S. 
  • 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” to China.

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, India should expect Sino-Russian closeness to continue, which poses its own challenges for India 
  • India has 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. 

Connecting the dots:

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