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As Moscow and Beijing Deepen Ties, the EU's China Approach will Become More Difficult

Vladimir Putin arrives in China on a state visit in 2018 © / CC BY 3.0 / Wikimedia Commons

In March 2021, the Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi and his Russian colleague Sergei Lavrov met in Guilin, Guangxi province, to announce a Sino-Russian rapprochement, which aims to push back the transatlantic momentum coming from the Biden led White House. Russia is hit by tough sanctions after the imprisonment of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, while the EU imposed sanctions on Chinese officials over the human rights crackdown in Xinjiang (Böge, Schmidt, 2021). With Moscow and Beijing intensifying their relationship, the EU's approach towards China might become more complicated.

China and Russia rallying against the West

Facing increased pressure, both countries joined forces on a wide range of issues. Relating to Western sanctions, top diplomats from both countries strongly criticized the West for making human rights a political issue (The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, 2011). By their mind, the western perception of human rights serves as a mere pretext to an undue interference with their home affairs. The message coming from Guilin is that China and Russia are ready to replace the old liberal world order by a multipolar one (MOFA, 2021). Therefore, Russia and China aim to intensify cooperation in multilateral institutions such as the UN. What we can expect in specific is deeper collaboration on regional conflicts such as Myanmar and Syria. While the influence on the situation in Myanmar is in China's strategic interest, for Russia the alliance in the UN serves to obtain a strong position in Syria (Böge, 2021).

This deliberate pragmatism between Moscow and Beijing aims at the multilateral level as well as at the relation between both superpowers. In view of western sanctions both governments are preparing to unhitch from the western dominated international monetary system. The dominance of the US dollar and the dependency on the payment system SWIFT make both China and Russia vulnerable to economic pressure from outside (Brüggmann, Heide, 2021). Besides that, China and Russia have signed a memorandum of understanding on the joint construction of an international lunar research station, challenging the US dominance in outer space (Global Times, 2021). Making use of US-EU disagreement over the completion of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, talks intensify over a second Russian-Chinese pipeline making Siberian natural gas ever more available to China's booming economy (Gabuev, 2021).

What we can learn from those ambitious and expensive projects is that the Sino-Russian axis goes for the long run and that their hope for a good relationship with the West has dwindled. The hardening western stance on China and Russia is driving both countries closer together and frictions in their relation are becoming less visible.

Partnership in Hierarchy

However, international observers view the Sino-Russian relation as hierarchical and comprising a handful of possible breaking points. One of the best examples is the asymmetric economic relationship between both superpowers. Russia mainly provides raw materials to China in exchange for more sophisticated products coming from China. In Russia’s far east the Chinese demand for timber has exploded and criticism arose over the Chinese unwillingness to invest in the region (Lee Myers, 2019). The fact that China is the most important customer and supplier for Russia while the significance of Russian exports and imports for China is minor illustrates the unequal position both governments hold when it comes to the economy (Hillman, 2020: 2-3).