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The ‘Power of Siberia’ Pipeline Strengthens the Sino-Russian Strategic Partnership

Dec 26, 2019

China and Russia’s strategic partnership took a step further this month when Gazprom released the flow of Russian natural gas to China through the $55 billion and 1,800-mile‘Power of Siberia’ pipeline. The new energy pipeline will deliver 30 to 38 billion cubic meters of natural gas annually to the western border of China. A smaller pipeline also links the Sakhalin Island in eastern Siberia to China. The ‘Power of Siberia’ is especially relevant to China’s push for cleaner energy and Russia’s desire to accumulate more US dollars from oil and gas sales. The Chinese-Russian alliance will become stronger with the addition of the pipeline, and the Beijing-Moscow alliance will only develop as the West maintains economic sanctions on Russia and as Washington imposes trade tariffs on China.

China’s coal consumption since 2000 is unmatched by past industrializations. Historically, coal production in Germany, India, the United Kingdom, and the United States never came close. In annual terawatt-hour equivalents (TWh), the US is slightly above 5,000 TWh, while China only recently dropped below 20,000 TWh. The Chinese refocus on Russian natural gas will result in further declines in Chinese coal consumption. Diverting attention from coal provides China with diplomatic credibility involving climate change at multilateral institutions like the United Nations. Cutting back on coal is also crucial to improving air quality in Chinese cities. Russian natural gas is relatively cheap and close. Logistically, the ‘Power of Siberia’ fits perfectly within the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and diminishes the global importance of US natural gas. The ‘Power of Siberia’ also further enriches the Sino-Russian border, a frontier already littered with lucrative trading hubs and transport lines.

For Russia, the ‘Power of Siberia’ further solidifies the newly formed strategic partnership between Beijing and Moscow and allows the Kremlin to leverage its natural resources to offset Western sanctions.CNN’s foreign correspondent, David A. Andelman, called the ‘Power of Siberia’ “the most significant energy project for Russia since the end of the Soviet Union.” Interestingly, recent mainstream media coverage of Russia is slightly less hawkish, but has become somewhat more hostile toward China, a sentiment published by The New York Times back in a July editorial piece titled,“What’s America’s Winning Hand if Russia Plays the China Card?” The US media and foreign policy elite fear the strategic partnership, especially after Putin set the goal of extending bilateral trade turnover to $200 billion by 2024, and Xi emphasized that "developing Russia-China relations is and will be a priority in our countries' foreign policy."

For those that choose not to remember, the deterioration of US relations with both China and Russia began during the Obama administration. Obama implemented the East Asia Strategy and Pivot to Asia, which advocated for an active US in security, diplomacy, economic, trade, and political affairs in Asia. The Obama-era strategy never formally isolated China. However, Obama’s approach to Asia represented an attempt to contain China and isolate it from its neighbors. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed Washington’s shift to Asia rather succinctly in the opening sentence of her 2011 article,“America’s Pacific Century.”

“The future of politics will be decided in Asia, not Afghanistan or Iraq, and the United States will be right at the center of the action.”

Hillary was right. The future is in Asia and not the Middle East. However, Beijing would never agree to a Washington ‘right at the center’ of Asian affairs. Her positions foreshadowed the Trump administration’s less hostile views on Russia and more economically hawkish stances on China. The difference is that Trump is less interested in multilateral diplomacy and America’s military presence in Asia and rather overly-focused on balancing trade and protection of US intellectual property. If anything, Trump shifted America’s focus slightly back to Europe because ofsecurity concerns involving Huawei’s influence over telecommunications infrastructure within NATO member states.

Concerning Russia, the Obama administration with Hillary at the helm sought to ‘reset’ relations in 2009, after the Bush-era Russian military conflict in Georgia. Diplomatic ties improved throughout 2010 and 2011, with progress in nuclear arms reductions and the abandonment of the Bush administration’s plans to build missile defense shields in Eastern Europe. However, relations declined again with the 2012 Magnitsky Act. Once Russia annexed Crimea and fighting began in the Donbas, hope for a revival in US-Russian relations evaporated. Shortly after, the West blamed Vladimir Putin personally for the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine. The Special Counsel investigation involving Russia’s interference in the 2016 United States election, as well as the consistent allegations that Russia is involved in every election from Brazil to France and India, only stomped out remaining optimism for a productive US-Russia relationship. With Trump, the China-US trade war, and Washington’s somewhat restrained criticism of the CCP’s involvement in the Hong Kong protests, attention was shifted from Russia to China. Hillary Clinton and Obama foresaw the shifting rivalry and identified that one Eurasian power – namely Russia – would become less of a threat than a much more formidable China.

What binds China and Russia together is the consistent US attempt to encroach on the respective spheres of influence of both Beijing and Moscow. Although the US never really ‘left’ the Middle East, the region sat along the Soviet Union’s southern border. Given that 6.5 percent of the Russian population is Muslim, the area is of particular interest due to extremism and domestic terrorist risks. Further, through the funding of NGOs and other local institutions, the Obama administration often supported the Russian opposition against Putin. American support for anti-Russian groups in Ukraine only widened the pre-existing divide between Moscow and Washington. For China, Obama’s ‘pivot to Asia’ represented a effort to stifle Chinese influence in the South China and East China seas. The US attempted to push neighboring states against China, and the East Asia Strategy and Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) both represented security mechanisms set up to contain China. The Trump administration has shifted the focus from security to trade and is largely uninterested in the South China Sea and the Hong Kong protests. Both Beijing and Moscow assert that the US has zero claims to their respective spheres of influence. While Crimea and Ukraine represented Russia’s most recent ‘break’ from the US, Hong Kong may very well be the tipping point for China-US relations, depending on the overall outcome.

AlthoughNATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg emphasized the military alliance’s long-term focus on Russia, both President Trump and Stoltenberg also mentioned that China is the second-largest defense spender in the world.Conservative Fox political commentator Tucker Carlson recently reiterated this sentiment on his show when he said, “The US ought to be in a relationship with Russia aligned against China." Carlson’s comments are oddly similar to the suggestions proposed by The New York Times. In short: befriend Russia to isolate China. Tucker received heavy criticism for his statement, along with his apathy and apparent support for Russia in the conflicts in Ukraine. About left-leaning cable news pundits and their coverage of Russia, Tucker said, "Putin, for all his faults, does not hate America as much as many of these people do."

Therefore, the developing strategic partnership between China and Russia sows divisions within foreign policy circles in the US and NATO. There is little Western consensus on how to approach Eurasian integration, and many of the Russian hawks are stuck in the Cold War past, while Washington’s criticisms of China should be precise and their desired ends should be defined. As emphasized before, Sino-Russian cooperation is larger than the ‘Power of Siberia.’ By the end of December, Iran will join Chinese and Russian armed forces in military exercises in the northern Indian Ocean. The seriousness of Sino-Russian cooperation is Eurasian in scale and flourishes when Washington misunderstands Beijing and Moscow’s long-term objectives.

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