FROM BEJING TO BRISBANE: RUSSIA’S CHINA CARD
By Joseph Dobbs
21 Nov 14. Vladimir Putin headed to Australia last week for the Brisbane G20 meeting, where he received a frosty welcome from Western leaders. However, whilst Western leaders like Tony Abbott debated whether or not to “shirtfront” the Russian President or declare him persona non grata, Vladimir Putin has been taking Russia’s relationship with China to a new level at the 25th anniversary APEC Summit in Beijing.
Russia’s relationship with China has found itself under increased scrutiny by Western commentators. In an article in Foreign Affairs, Gilbert Rozman argues that the Russo-Chinese partnership is here to stay. Others claim that Russian Eastern re-orientation is more tactical, as Moscow hopes that it can get a more equal partnership with Europe. As leaders prepare for what will be a tense G20 meeting, just how strong is Putin’s China card?
Similar national ideologies and mutual distrust of the current global order form the foundation of the contemporary Russo-Chinese partnership. Internally, both Moscow and Beijing have created a political environment in which political legitimacy is derived from stirring up nationalist sentiment. In the international space, Chinese fear of a U.S. pivot to Asia mirrors the anxiety in Moscow about a NATO expanding eastwards. Both sides worry that the Western supported “colour revolutions” in Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan and the Arab Spring, will be repeated. Both Russia and China are aided in their global goals by a strong partnership with the other.
Common interests have seen Russia and China achieve a great deal by strengthening their partnership even before the latest Russia-West crisis. The two settled a long disputed border, which considering they almost went to war over it in 1969, was hailed as one of Vladimir Putin’s “greatest foreign policy achievements.” Without border worries hanging over them, Russia and China have been able to develop a healthy diplomatic relationship. Xi Jinping, upon becoming Chinese President in 2013 chose Moscow as his first international trip, arriving with great fanfare. A number of high-level meetings during the Xi era have further strengthened this relationship. When tensions rose between Russia and the West in light of the former’s aggression in Eastern Ukraine, China was the natural place for the Kremlin to turn.
A strong Russo-Chinese bilateral relationship has translated into more cooperation in multilateral fora too. Russia and China, alongside four Central Asian partners, are members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). The SCO is a security, political and economic organisation which has its roots in the fight against extremism in Central Asia. Russia, once a reluctant partner, has now supported the proposed membership of Iran, India and Pakistan, which could mean that the SCO may represent nearly half of the world’s population. More globally, the BRICS partnership between Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa made a significant step towards increasing its influence when it announced in July the foundation of a development bank to rival the IMF and World Bank, to be based in Shanghai. As well as cooperating in the development of non-Western organisations, Russia and China have also openly challenged the West at the United Nations. Beijing has supported Putin’s position on Syria, and steadfastly refused to condemn Russia’s forays into Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, despite preaching commitment to national sovereignty and respect for territorial integrity elsewhere.
Russia and China’s energy relationship adds solidity to the ideological commonalities that have allowed the two to cooperate. Putin and Xi have a lot to be pleased with. In May a long awaited and much celebrated bilateral gas deal was signed, which will see 38 billion cubic meters (bcm) of natural gas pass through a pipeline in Heilongjiang Province, over the very same border over which the