China Power | Diplomacy | East Asia

Russia’s Romance With China Is All About Keeping Up Appearances

Closer ties between Moscow and Beijing are worth more as a threat than a reality.

By Gabriel Gavin for
Russia’s Romance With China Is All About Keeping Up Appearances
Credit: Russian Presidential Press and Information Service

It’s no secret that 2020 has been a tough year for friendships. The prospect of setting up yet another videoconference, even with immediate family, has proven too much for many. And so, inevitably, drinking buddies and water-cooler acquaintances have struggled to survive in the age of social distancing.

For Russian President Vladimir Putin, however, there seems to be little risk of drifting apart from one of his closest allies on the world stage. Only last year, Chinese President Xi Jinping described Moscow’s leader as his “best friend,” and it appears a new set of challenges have done nothing to shake that.

On a bilateral call between Beijing and Moscow on December 29, Xi insisted that they would work “unswervingly” to develop an ever-closer partnership, and that “strategic cooperation between China and Russia can effectively resist any attempt to suppress and divide the two countries.”

The message to the world, and particularly to U.S. President-elect Joe Biden, was clear: You will be taking on a united front. Both China and Russia face sanctions from Washington and its partners in one form or another, and the incoming American leader makes little secret of his distaste for either. Through the Cold War lens he cultivated over decades in the Senate, Biden’s foreign policy worldview is one where Moscow and Beijing are still the bad guys.

Both Xi and Putin have a lot on the line when it comes to the transition of power in the United States. China is eager to leave Donald Trump’s crusade against its businesses and exports in the past when he leaves office, but there are no guarantees that a Democratic administration will be any less oppositional. Similarly, Russia has genuine concerns about the collapse of bilateralism with the U.S., after Washington pulled out of a series of weapons control treaties. With nothing to gain from a new arms race, it has its hopes pinned on Biden for the extension of the New START treaty, the last remaining brake on the number of nuclear missiles the two countries can maintain in their arsenals. Unless Washington comes back to the table, it will expire in February.

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Analysts have long seen blossoming ties between Russia and China as a shallow relationship and, given the difference in the size of their economies, inevitably an unequal one. However, those predictions appear to have fallen short and, given the political tensions between East and West, the world’s largest country and the world’s most populous country have found themselves in a marriage of convenience that both value. Trade with China has shored up Russia’s industries against sanctions, while Moscow is fast becoming its neighbor’s most important energy supplier.

But if, as Xi said this week, Moscow and Beijing won’t be pulled apart, the question remains as to whether they can be pushed closer together. Despite the warm rhetoric, the reality of Sino-Russian diplomacy is that it runs a mile wide and an inch deep. Despite how closely the two nations are linked in trade and investment, theirs is a still a broadly economic partnership underpinned by almost no political integration.

The Western blocs that they seek to counterbalance are defined by the exchange of intelligence through pacts like the Five Eyes, and through joint military operations under the auspices of NATO. For now at least, Chinese spies and Russian generals appear to be a long way from contemplating anything similar. And, given Russia’s wariness over China’s growing role in its historic sphere of influence in Central Asia, that is likely to remain the case for the time being. There is also the added challenge that both parties effectively already have what they want from each other and neither currently sees the need to extend beyond economic partnership.

As a result, the idea of a deeper, lasting alliance between Moscow and Beijing is, for both of them, more useful than the actual reality of it. The two nations have a track record in overcoming past animosity and present-day frictions in the face of sanctions, trade wars, and attempts to leave them politically isolated. While fighting those battles has undoubtedly hurt both, their presentation of a united front is designed to demonstrate that they can survive them together if they have to.

Neither Putin nor Xi wants to turn their back on the West and, in fact, the opposite is true. With the colossal Nord Stream 2 pipeline linking Siberia’s natural gas fields to consumers in Germany, France, and the U.K., Russia has set out a bold future for its role in European energy markets. China, on the other hand, achieved a coup on December 30, signing a comprehensive trade deal with the EU after seven years of hard-fought negotiations. Both evidently see prosperity in stable links with the region.

Not everyone is supportive of that paradigm. The United States is aggressively lobbying against Nord Stream 2, even sanctioning German firms involved in its construction, on the pretext that it is a grave threat to energy security. Cynics claim, though, that Washington’s motives are less noble, and more closely related to ambitions to ply its shale gas to the European market. Likewise, Brussels’ decision to end the year by popping corks with Beijing risks antagonising both the incoming and outgoing U.S. administrations.

As convenient as friendly relations between the Kremlin and Zhongnanhai are, the threat that ties could run deeper in the face of political and economic conflict is their powerful attribute. If Moscow is forced to export less gas to Europe, it will export more to China. If Beijing feels naval tensions with the United States are rising in the South China Sea, greater coordination with the Russian fleet in the Sea of Japan is always an option.

While those kinds of arrangements would be a nightmare for many Western leaders, the irony is that few have as large a part to play in whether it comes about as they do. For European and American capitals, every punitive step, every sanction and every newly-imposed tariff carries the risk of driving Russia and China further into each other’s arms.

Gabriel Gavin is a writer and political consultant living in London, U.K. His reporting and analysis on Central and Eastern Europe has been featured in print and online for outlets including The Independent, UnHerd and The Kyiv Post.