Increasingly, Russia and China are forging a stronger partnership, much to the dismay of other countries especially the U.S. China is the ascending world power, Russia the former superpower, and the U.S. still the preeminent global superpower. This relationship does not come as much of a surprise; Russia and China lack close relations with many highly developed countries and in some ways, this partnership is out of convenience. Both have divergent ambitions and goals though a mutual distrust of the U.S. and the west is more than enough to elicit cooperation. Regardless, in many ways closer collaboration between the two countries despite differences stands to benefit both.
Historic Sino-Russian Relations
In the aftermath of WWII, the Communist victory on mainland China in 1949 led to an alliance with the USSR. Relations entered an increasingly rough patch following the death of Soviet leader Stalin in 1953 and in 1961, rising discord on a variety of fronts including ideological resulted in the termination of the alliance. Both competed for influence globally and in 1969 a brief border war broke out. China began to see the USSR as a greater threat than the U.S. and both countries attempted to forge closer relations. The death of Chinese leader Mao in 1976 was followed by a gradual normalization of relations which progressed rapidly after the dissolution of the USSR in 1991 and the end of the Cold War.
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Moscow’s actions in East Ukraine have served to further distance Russia from the West and it was to be expected that Russia would turn to the East, especially China. This turn to the East actually began in the early 2000s as differences in opinion emerged between Moscow and the west, particularly over NATO expansion and with Moscow feeling disrespected and slighted by the U.S. and EU. For China, Russia has the energy resources its needs and is the only truly viable partner in Asia of considerable importance.
Russia needs the economic benefits that come with closer relations to China and China needs Russia as a partner in Eurasia. Additionally, both seek to provide an effective counter to the U.S. and its allies.
In the words of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, both Russia and China are working on forming a “cooperation model in the 21st century.” In so much he is pushing forth the notion that the Russia-China relationship is necessary and important in maintaining regional and international stability. One can see the irony in that belief since Russia’s actions in Ukraine and China’s provocations in the South China Sea are far from the idea of peace and stability. Russia and China cooperation globally does have a long history and the two have acted together in the United Nations Security Council to block moves by the west.
Economically, both countries are increasing engagement. Last year, Russia signed its biggest ever gas deal with China providing the former with an ever growing market for its natural gas resources and the latter with access to them. Meanwhile, significant currency swaps have been implemented allowing direct transactions between both countries. A few months ago, both countries signaled the possibility that their regional economic projects, the Eurasian Economic Union (Russia) and the Silk Road Economic Belt (China) might be combined sometime in the future.
On the military front, both countries are currently engaged in the second phase of Joint Sea 2015, the largest yet naval drills to be held by them. This exercise comes on the heels of several other joint military drills that growing ever larger and more complex. Additionally, Russia is considering the possible sale of several highly advanced weapon systems to China while China is looking to offer advanced electronic components.
Russia is also prioritizing China as a partner in its Artic development effort. Currently Russia is a member of the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental organization that aims to provide a forum for countries who have claims in the Arctic. China is an observer state and its relationship with Russia in the words of Lavrov, “our cooperation [Russia-China] goes beyond the framework of the Arctic Council. The part of the Arctic, which belongs to the Russian Federation, is where we can engage in bilateral cooperation with many partners, above all, the People’s Republic of China.”
The issue of Eurasia though is where some goals of both Russia and China differ greatly. While both support the economic development of the region and do not want to see the U.S. or any other foreign power such as India make strategic inroads, their ultimate ambitions are somewhat different. For Russia, Eurasia is part of its near abroad (the independent republics that emerged from the dissolution of the USSR) and as a result, Moscow believes it is and should be in its sphere of influence. On the other hand, China now views the great importance of the region and has been making significant inroads, economic, and political. In several cases, Beijing now exerts more influence than Moscow in certain Eurasian countries and arguably, holds the most influence in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (a Eurasian political, economic, and military pact). For now though, competition is being avoided with Russia primarily focusing on regional security and China on regional economic development.
Thoughts on separatism also vary significantly between Russia and China. Where Moscow has supported breakaway movements in Georgia and Ukraine, Beijing is less inclined to be supportive of self-determination when it manifests itself in a separatist movement. China is concerned with separatist movements in Tibet and in Xinjiang Province and so support of Russian backed separatist movements would be hypocritical.
While it is certain that Moscow and Beijing enjoy closer ties with each other than they do with Washington, the Russia-China relationship is far from being a solid partnership. The development of this relationship is mutually beneficial to Russia and China from a variety of perspectives. At the same time, Russia is ultimately the junior partner to China with its only clear advantage not being in demographics, or economic strength but in the number of nuclear weapons it possesses. As time passes, the disparity in economics and influence will increasingly favor Beijing; in many ways they already do. Moscow must already know this but the need for such a partnership outweighs its lesser role. Beijing on the other hand would rather have Russia as a partner than an opponent and will extract every benefit it can from the relationship.
Ultimately, the real problem this relationship poses to the west and the U.S. is one of global influence. Already China is rapidly expanding its influence in South America and Africa through economic muscle and Russia is in a supporting role. On the other hand, the divergent interests of Russia and China are enough to limit the effectiveness of their partnership in influence. Many more countries would rather partner with the west than with the Russia and China.