China Power | Diplomacy | East Asia

How Will the Coronavirus Outbreak Affect Russia-China Relations?

The current disruption to ties doesn’t change the structural features uniting Moscow and Beijing.

By Ka-Ho Wong for
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How Will the Coronavirus Outbreak Affect Russia-China Relations?
Credit: Russian Presidential Press and Information Office

It has been a month since Russia closed its border with China and banned Chinese nationals from entering the country. Things are heating up on the ground as Russian authorities discriminate against Chinese citizens, a huge contrast to the Putin-Xi bromance. Although Russia and China upgraded their strategic partnership last year, Moscow has adopted the most radical anti-coronavirus measures against Chinese nationals.

Are Russia and China drifting apart as a result of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus that first appeared in Wuhan in December? Considering the main purpose behind the Russian-Chinese partnership, past compromises between the two countries, the coronavirus’s impact on the Russian economy, don’t count on it.

First, the Russia-China partnership is an outcome of their shared dissatisfaction with American hegemony. Both Russia and China oppose the U.S.-led liberal hegemony as it does not take their interests into account. Regardless of fierce opposition, the United States has extended its influence in Russia’s and China’s backyard, often under the cover of democracy promotion and human rights issues.

For instance, NATO’s and the EU’s eastward enlargement triggered Russia’s threat perception, leading to the Georgia War and Ukraine crisis. The Chinese government, meanwhile, blames Washington for Hong Kong’s protests and bitterly resents recurring arms deals with Taiwan. Russia and China also opposed the U.S.-led military campaigns against Serbia, Iraq, and Libya. Both Moscow and Beijing believe that the United States’ unilateralism poses significant threats to their sovereignty and interests.

Moscow and Beijing seek a more balanced international order but possess a different vision of this future world. The Kremlin foresees a multipolar world like the Concert of Europe during the 19th century while Zhongnanhai anticipates forming a G-2 with the United States. But ultimately, the Russian-Chinese partnership’s foremost objective is to end the unipolar world dominated by the United States.

With this strategic objective in mind, Russia and China often make compromises and downplay frictions in their relationship. Shortly after the Ukraine crisis, both governments forced Gazprom and China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) to sign a 30-year, $400 billion gas deal. The deal was under negotiations for almost a decade due to bargains over the price.

In addition, the Kremlin has paid lip service to the alignment of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) as it lacks significant progress. A division of labor has been developed in Central Asia that Russia remains as the main security provider while China leads regional economic integration.

Given the sheer difference in economic size, there is a growing power disparity between Russia and China. Russia would be the junior partner in this partnership but Russian strategists downplay this concern as they prioritize the big picture of geopolitics. Beijing, aware of the issue, makes sure equal status is given to both leaders at the Putin-Xi summits and highlights the two leaders’ close personal ties.

Amid the outbreak, both governments have offered a conciliatory tone in their responses to coronavirus-related controversies. Shocked by Russia’s entry ban, the Chinese Foreign Ministry nevertheless said that Russian measures are understandable and emphasized that Beijing appreciates Moscow’s support to China against the epidemic. Russian officials clarified that the entry ban is a temporary measure and that Moscow will keep issuing business and transit visas to Chinese citizens. Regarding Chinese nationals abused under Russia’s quarantine measures, the Chinese embassy has dismissed the allegation as rumors. That is significantly different from China’s reactions to the United States and Japan.

Bilateral trade between Russia and China reached a record high of $110 billion last year.  As China has become Russia’s top trading partner, the border closure and entry ban undoubtedly hurt the two countries’ economic ties. According to the Russian Customs Service, Russia’s exports to China shrank 30 percent in the first month and a half of 2020. The immediate economic consequence of Russia’s restrictive measures will be rather limited. However, China’s economic slowdown may cause reduced demand for Russian fuel.

Russia’s entry ban for Chinese citizens has hit hard in the tourism industry. According to the Association of Russian Tour Operators, the industry will lose 2.8 billion rubles ($38 million) in two months and 30 billion rubles ($403 million) if the ban is not lifted before this summer. Last year, Russia hosted 1.5 million Chinese tourists, the most from any single country.

The coronavirus outbreak in China will derail Putin’s National Projects program. The six-year program involves $400 billion of investments to revive the Russian economy and legitimize the extension of Putin’s rule beyond 2024. The recent oil war has further complicated the prospect of Russia’s economic growth.

Taking the long view, Russia’s restrictive measures are temporary and will not rock the boat of the Russian-Chinese partnership as long as the United States remains their common enemy. Given the coronavirus’ negative impacts on the Russian economy, Moscow may in fact move deeper into China’s embrace to boost its economic recovery. In the end, Russian and Chinese propaganda machines will do their job and persuade the people to stay in line with their leaders. This time, they will realize the realpolitik instead of sensationalized brotherhood.

Ka-Ho Wong is a Research Assistant at the Education University of Hong Kong. He received a master’s degree from Moscow State Institute of International Relations. His research focus is on Russian-Chinese relations and Russia’s Asia policy.