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Foreign Policy

Feeling Squeezed by the U.S., China Leans on Russia in Push for Strategic Balance

Jul 07 , 2016
  • Zheng Yu

    Professor, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences

On June 25, Russian President Vladimir Putin paid a one-day official visit to Beijing. Brief as it was, the meeting still drew worldwide attention, and several agreements were signed during the visit.

2016 marks the 20th anniversary of the Partnership for Strategic Coordination and the 15th anniversary of the Sino-Russian Good-Neighbor Treaty between China and Russia, which could have warranted high-profile celebrations. The somewhat subdued occasion reveals the quandary that grips the Putin government. Internationally, the Ukraine crisis prompted the US and European countries to deepen economic sanctions on Russia, and further isolate Russia from the global political arena, most notably from the G8. Furthermore, the anti-terrorism resolution presented by Russia at the UN was flatly rejected by Western countries, and cooperation on this front was discontinued. Russia’s air operations in Syria at best served to salvage the Assad regime militarily, but it didn’t knock open the door of cooperation in anti-terrorism from the US and Europe, nor achieve entente with the Western world.

In addition to sidelining Russia from the G20, the US has intensified military deployment to NATO countries adjacent to Russia, with frequent military drills, as evidenced in the smooth deployment of anti-ballistic missile agreement for the years of 2012-2020 by some Eastern European countries. In Northeast Asia, in the wake of the heightened tensions of the North Korea crisis, the ROK was in the thick of discussions with the US on the possible deployment of the THAAD system. In the meantime, Russia’s military response to what happened in the Crimean Peninsula was widely construed as an act of aggression, which has cost Russia’s international image dearly. In sum, Russia is undergoing the toughest external environment since the disintegration of the Soviet Union, both in terms of national defense and foreign policy.

Domestically, though President Putin’s approval rating edged upward, the Russian economy is not yet out of the woods. In 2015, its GDP was down by 3.7% in comparable terms, and down by 35% in US dollar terms. A plunge in oil prices is making a dent in Russia’s foreign reserves and shrinking its economy. This cast a shadow on the Eurasian Economic Union, which was formally launched in January 2015 with Russia as a primary member. According to data of the Ministry of Economic Development of Russia, intra trade volume of the Eurasian Economic Union dropped by 25% compared with that of the Eurasian Economic Space, its former embodiment, in 2014. The decline in trading was driven by a reduced proportion of industrial manufactured goods, albeit with an increase in commodities, as well as shrinking two-way investment. Against this backdrop, Russia still has to bear hefty military expenses for operations in Eastern Ukraine and economic assistance to the region, which saps Russia’s economic strength with no immediate turnaround in sight. This could be an albatross around the administration’s neck for some time to come.

Hence, Putin had multiple tasks on his China visit.

First, Russia wants to join hands with China to counter pressure from the US, prompted by the American pursuit of global hegemony, disregard of international laws, and the urge to claim moral high ground over other countries. The hope is to clear Russia’s name as an aggressor against Crimea. The signing of the Declaration of the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China on the Promotion of International Law is a pointed effort, too.

Second, increased military spending by NATO countries and expanding deployment of defense systems in the Middle East and Northeast Asia put tremendous pressure on Russia, but the economic chill wind has hindered Russia from outspending or outracing the US in military deployment. Russia is keen to work together with China to counter the US and even pull back its global strategies, which is the main rationale behind the joint statement between China and Russia to strengthen global strategic stability during the visit.

Third, economic and business cooperation, especially in the form of economic assistance, is high on the agenda. China has voiced its opposition to economic sanctions imposed on Russia since April 2014, and has been providing economic assistance to Russia. An April 30 report on the Wall Street Journal’s Chinese website said that in the span of a week, China provided assistance to Russia in several ways, such as project deals on on Moscow-Kazan railway, LNG purchase, agricultural cooperation in the Far East, and other financial and oil deals, with an overall amount running to $100 billion. During Putin’s visit to China, the two countries signed over 30 agreements to advance their economic and business ties.

As things stand now, Russia is more inclined to an anti-US stance than China, and China is more of a follower. That is demonstrated in China’s Party conference report and government work report, where barely any reference to multi-polarization or reform of global order was made. The reality is the US has been pressuring China on multiple fronts, thus prompting China to lean on Russia in the quest for strategic balance in the region. Given that, China-Russia cooperation in security policy and military technology development will continue.

There are voices in China’s economic and academic circles calling for prudence and discretion in providing aid to Russia, citing the questionable state of Russia’s ability to pay back debts and good faith in pursuing such cooperation. It should be borne in mind that in parallel to the economic significance, China’s aid carries political significance. A faltering Russia would not be able to share burdens with China, and hence it makes sense to continue economic aid to Russia.

Another view worth mentioning is that economic and trade cooperation between China and Russia carries more political symbolism than practical benefits, as both the volume and the technological content of such cooperation is diminishing. Having said that, the political symbolism keeps Russia from openly opposing China’s strategy to promote the Belt and Road initiative in Central Asia and former Soviet Union countries.

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