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NIAS Europe Studies
Putin-Xi Summit: Towards a Strategic transformation in Russia-China relations

  Padmashree Anandhan

On 16 May, Russian President Vladimir Putin met Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing for the second time in the last 12 months. President Xi said, "China and Russia have shown others an example of building a new type of interstate relations and relations between major neighbours. All this was made possible because both parties were committed to the following five principles." 

On 16 May, in his address, Putin said: "The negotiations just held showed the great importance that both Moscow and Beijing attach to the development and strengthening of the Russian-Chinese comprehensive partnership and strategic interaction."

On 17 May, in a press briefing, National Security Communications Advisor John Kirby commented on Putin's visit to China. He said: "Leaders of two countries that - that clearly are acting in various ways around the world inimical to our national security interests, to the interests of many of our allies and partners... they're also two leaders that don't have a long history of working together, and officials in both governments that - that aren't necessarily all that trustful of the other." On the US perception of Russia-China relations and engagement in war in Ukraine, Kirby added: "...the challenges that both countries that represent, and we take seriously this burgeoning relationship between the two of them...President Xi rush to the effort to assist the Russian Armed Forces and provide lethal capabilities...some of these Chinese companies that are providing microelectronics and components for Russia's defensive weapons systems.  That's a problem, and we've raised that with the Chinese as well."

What is the background?
First, the strategic transformation in the Russia-China relationship. Following the establishment of the People's Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, the former Soviet Union established the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance, and Mutual Assistance. Mao Zedong and Joseph Stalin aimed to strengthen their friendship while promoting the socialist cause. Relations soured in the mid-50s and escalated in the 1960s to a war. During the 1980s, tensions remained high over the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, the Soviet support to Vietnam, and its deployment of troops along the Sino-Soviet border and Sino-Mongolian border. Under Deng Xiaoping, pragmatism led to a relaxation of the tensions. By the late 1980s, Russia and China agreed to step up their relations. During 1989 and 1991, the first high-level meetings between Mikhail Gorbachev and Jiang Zemin led to a Partnership of Strategic Cooperation in 1996. By the 2000s, the relationship witnessed steady improvement, leading to the formation of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), settling border disputes and a significant boost of economic and military cooperation. The bilateral trade increased six times from USD eight billion to USD 55.5 billion. Russia-China relations furthered into a comprehensive strategic partnership in 2010. The War in Ukraine and the US-China tensions during the 2010s have further strengthened the above.

Second, increasing Russia-China collaboration since the Ukraine War. The joint statement by Russia and China ahead of the war on 04 February 2022 marked the recovery of the relations post-pandemic and as a precursor to the war. Since August 2021, both have engaged in joint military exercises and naval patrol through the South African Navy. On the Ukraine war, China has assured its commitment to sovereignty, called for an immediate ceasefire, and abstained in UNSC resolutions but had not provided full weapon support in the initial stages of the war. In February 2023, Beijing also released a 12-point statement proposing a "political settlement to the Ukraine crisis," The "Comprehensive Partnership and Strategic Cooperation for a New Era" promotes Russian-Chinese Economic Cooperation until 2030, especially in energy cooperation such as building the new Power of Siberia-2 gas pipeline across Mongolia, the opening Asia-Pacific strategy against the Indo-Pacific strategy, and increasing its total trade to USD 250 billion by 2024. The collaborations have deepened in energy, agriculture, fertilizers, metals, electronics, and machinery, and the use of national currency in trade, finance, and technology. 

Third, apprehensions in bilateral relations. Central Asia, Russia's Far East, and, recently, the Arctic remain the points of bilateral contention between China and Russia. Moscow has cautiously approached China in joining BRI by keeping its objectives and interests forward. Despite the scope of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and BRI integration, the strategic ties between both have been limited outside BRI. To rebalance, Russia emphasizes multilateral institutions, such as BRICS, SCO, and the Russia-India-China trilateral initiative, to outgrow China's influence. Moscow is also concerned over China's presence and investments in Russia's Far East and Siberia, which was declared "a national priority for the 21st century" by Russia. Russia-China cooperation in the Arctic also reflects competition since China began to showcase itself as a "Near-Arctic State." 

What does this mean?
First, advantage China.  Closer ties after the war in Ukraine have lifted the mutual understanding principle. This means China's support to Russia in the war and Russian acceptance of China's sovereignty and territorial claims. Over the 75 years, Russia's ending of the border dispute emerged in the 1990s, helping China to focus on its periphery. Apart from this, China's integration into Central Asia and regional forums through Russia has helped expand its BRI initiative. Although these factors contribute to different facets to improve their equation, the high-level political support remains the binding factor.

Second, managing strategic balance and tactical tensions. The trend of the Russia-China relationship is similar to that of an N-shaped Kuznets curve. The relations witnessed a spark of friendship till the 1960's and dipped down till the 1980's. Still, it is a clear departure from the Cold War mentality heading into a strategic improvement with geopolitical complexities. China, at present, holds a strategic position with a growing military strength and global economic influence. Meanwhile, for Russia, the strategy remains a tactical play-out situation at the inter-economic and sub-regional level so as not to let the rope loose. At the same time, it swerves in the fallouts of the war in Ukraine. 

About the Author

Padmashree Anandhan is a Project Associate at NIAS.

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