Hidden Animus in the Russia-China Friendship

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 16 Issue: 33

Presidents Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin (Source: Kremlin.ru)

Official Russian discourse on the status of relations with China is as upbeat as it can possibly be. Andrei Denisov, the long-serving ambassador to Beijing, claims that the two countries are enjoying the best period ever in the history of their partnership (Russiancouncil.ru, March 3). Russian President Vladimir Putin, in his recent address to the Federal Assembly, described relations as “equal and mutually beneficial,” before starting on his vitriolic diatribe against the consequences of the withdrawal of the United States from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty (Kremlin.ru, February 20). It is certainly beneficial for Moscow to advertise the strength of mutual affection, and Beijing finds it useful to play along; but in reality, suspicions run deep in both states as trust and respect are in short supply. A recent editorial in Nezavisimaya Gazeta illuminates this hidden context.

The editors of this newspaper are careful to depart only slightly from the official Kremlin line, but they felt compelled to publicize the rude and recurrent pressure coming from the Chinese embassy in Moscow (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, March 4). The editorial quotes a message from Guo Yunhai, the embassy’s press secretary, to a journalist demanding he remove his article from the newspapers’ website and threatening to blacklist him and prevent him from visiting China.

It is unclear which article attracted the ire of Chinese officials, but Nezavisimaya Gazeta has persisted with examining the consequences of the slowdown in China’s economy for Russia (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, March 5). Meanwhile, in the official daily Rossiiskaya Gazeta this theme is never mentioned. What was particularly striking in the rebuke from the Chinese embassy, however, was the reference to the growing discontent in Russian society, which Putin has allegedly failed to quell.

The Kremlin leader has, indeed, sought to demonstrate increased attention for social problems instead of boasting about foreign policy successes, but his promise of renewed economic growth is not realistic. Russia has initiated and moved full speed toward a new arms race, which its industrial base cannot sustain (Moscow Echo, February 26). Economic ties with China provide few stimuli for growth, and Russian companies keep trying in vain to connect with Chinese infrastructure projects that are part of the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (Forbes.ru, March 7). Even arms exports are stagnant, and no new deals are in the making after the sale of 24 modern Su-35 fighters and two regimental sets of S-400 surface-to-air missiles (Rossiiskaya Gazeta, March 5). India has become the main customer for the Russian arms industry, and Moscow finds no problem with this, even against the background of escalation of the old military conflict with Pakistan (Kommersant, March 6).

Putin is eager to demonstrate his perfectly cordial relations with President Xi Jinping, and he acutely feels the need to prove that Russia is a valuable ally to China. The spectacular crisis in Venezuela apparently provides an opportunity for that, as Moscow has assumed the role of the main supporter for the beleaguered regime of Nicolás Maduro. It is, however, quite clear for Beijing that a key driver of this “principled” stance is the corrupt interests of loyal Putin lieutenants such as Igor Sechin, the de facto owner of the state oil corporation Rosneft (Moscow Echo, January 28). Furthermore, dubious deals in providing financial rescue to effectively bankrupt Venezuela can expose Russian banks to additional US sanctions (Riddle, March 1). China is actually much more cautious in securing its big investments in Venezuela (Carnegie.ru, February 1). The fundamental difference is that Russia stands to benefit from disruptions in the global oil market caused by the protracted crisis in Venezuela, while China loses (Carnegie.ru, March 4).

A major crisis on Russia’s own borders is centered on North Korea; yet, Moscow cannot find a way to make a difference there. Putin feels vindicated in his predictions that Pyongyang would never give up its nuclear weapons, and Russian mainstream commentary is keen to point out the shortcomings of US President Donald Trump’s personal diplomacy (Russiancouncil.ru, March 6). Following China’s lead, Russia has enforced the sanctions regime, except for some minor transgressions (The Bell, February 26). Moscow cannot fail to see, however, that for Beijing the North Korean problem is part of complicated bargaining with the US on trade. The probable looming compromise deal in these US-Chinese talks could signify a further curtailing of Russia’s scant influence in Northeast Asia (Newsru.com, March 4).

One particular twist in Beijing and Washington’s economic wrangle is the latter’s assault on the Chinese tech giant Huawei. Russian media is following the exchange of blows with keen attention (Kommersant, March 7). Samsung holds sway over the Russian market, but Huawei is expanding and seeks to benefit from politically privileged access (Forbes.ru, March 3). Yet, Russian experts and entrepreneurs have few illusions about the blossoming of corruption in the Chinese economic “miracle” (Carnegie.ru, March 6). The problem is that corruption in China is a product of a very different political culture and so cannot effectively connect with Russian corruption.

It was exactly 50 years ago that Russian (Soviet) and Chinese troops engaged in a local but fierce clash on tiny Damansky Island on the Amur River (Novaya Gazeta, February 15). Control of the island has been long transferred to China (and the island is now called Zhenbao), and Russian official media prefers not to reflect on the anniversary of that old conflict (Kommersant, March 7). Russian top brass may harbor deep reservations about China’s military superiority in the Far East, but it has to pretend that the bilateral partnership is greatly strengthened by the invitation of Chinese troops to partake in the Vostok 2018 exercises (Nezavisimoe Voennoe Obozrenie, December 28).

Putin has inadvertently spelled out the looming problem with this partnership: Russia desperately wants it to be equal but has arrived at the conclusion that it is not. Beijing helps Moscow to maintain the facade by keeping up minimal pretenses, but the real disdain for the declining, improperly governed and pompous (see EDM, March 5) “ally” is becoming rather transparent. Putin’s Russia aspires to the role of prime international troublemaker, and before long China will be giving it stern instructions when to stir the pot and when to stop. Russia’s “sovereignty,” which Putin declares is a core value, may soon be severely and inescapably compromised.