China-Russia strategic partnership: Stronger on surface than substance

To symbolize the growing ties between the two giant neighbors, Chinese President Xi Jinping met his Russian counterpart, President Vladimir Putin during the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Summit in Tsingtao. The Xi-Putin meeting on June 10 marked the 25th meeting between the two leaders since President Xi assumed office in 2013.

Russia and China, writes Dave Majumdar of the National Interest, “are drawing closer together as Washington ratchets up pressure on Beijing and Moscow. As result of American pressure, the two powers — which already had grievances against Washington — have formed a strategic partnership to balance against the U.S-led liberal hegemony.”

“Is America’s greatest fear coming true?” asked Majumdar, “Is a China-Russia alliance forming?”

The signs are there — at least on the surface.

As President Xi and President Putin are developing their personal friendship, the General Office of Chinese Communist Party Central Committee and the Russian President’s Office have established a mechanism for holding regular working-level talks. In addition to frequent meetings between the top leaders, other levels of exchanges between the two governments have also become routine.

During his recent visit to Moscow, General Wei Fenghe, China’s new defense minister, told Russia’s TASS new agency, “I am visiting Russia as the new defense minister of China to show the world a high level of development of our bilateral relations and firm determination of our Armed Forces to strengthen strategic cooperation. I have come to show Americans the close ties between the Armed Forces of China and Russia.”

General Wei’s Russian counterpart, Russian defense minister Sergei Shoigu also applauded the new level of military cooperation reached between Beijing and Moscow. “Russian-Chinese relations today has reached principally new unprecedented level,” declared General Shoigu, “and have become a critical factor in keeping peace and international security.”

Moscow and Beijing are forging what both sides described as a “comprehensive strategic partnership.” The goal of a Russian-Chinese continental entente, says Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, “will essentially be aimed at limiting U.S. dominance on the edges of the continent and in the world at large.”

As part of the growing military cooperation, reported the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post, “Moscow and Beijing have conducted joint military maneuvers, including exercises in the South China Sea and joint navy drills in the Baltics. The Baltic exercise marked the first time that China had flexed its military muscle in a region where tensions between Russia and NATO have escalated following Moscow’s annexation of Crimea.”

Sino-Russian economic relations, according to Chinese scholars and analysts, are “flourishing” as well. “For Russia,” writes Dai Weilai at China’s Anhui University, “China is an important market and source of capital. For China, Russia’s stable energy supply is important in order to secure China’s economic growth. China has maintained its position as Russia’s largest trading partner for eight years. In 2017, China and Russia’s bilateral trade rose to $84 billion.”

Beneath the surface, however, obstacles remain in further developing the Sino-Russian “comprehensive strategic partnership.”

Economically, Russia is clearly the junior partner and continues to be an insignificant trading partner for China. “As a trade partner,” noted Alexander Lukin, author of China and Russia: The New Rapprochement, “Russia is much less significant for China than are its leading trading partners – the U.S., Japan, South Korea, and Germany. Russia’s role is comparable to such smaller states as Singapore, Malaysia, and the Netherlands. Russia’s trade with China accounted for slightly more than 2 percent of that country’s total trade volume.”

Strategically, summarized the London-based Financial Times, “Russia remains suspicious of Chinese intentions… Indeed, China and Russia remain as much strategic competitors as they are strategic partners. That is particularly true in Central Asia, a region that Mr. Putin believes is vital to Russia’s interests. China has been lavishing money and attention on the resource-rich region. Beijing’s ‘one belt, one road’ policy, part of which aims to reconstruct the old Silk Road through Central Asia to Europe and North Africa, is a direct challenge to Moscow’s influence. If successful, it would give Central Asian states alternative export markets, reducing their dependence on Russia.”

Historical distrust as well as contemporary economic and security concerns between the two great powers remains and the differences between China and Russia are as great as the forces that unite them. Two biggest powers in Eurasia are still wary of each other. It is unlikely that the Oriental Dragon and the Arctic Bear can establish a genuine and long-lasting “comprehensive strategic partnership.”

Xiaoxiong Yi is director of Marietta College’s China Program.

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