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).
A look on the map shows that China's pivot to the east – mainly implemented by its gigantic Belt and Road Initiative – is a possible pressure point for the Sino-Russian axis. As China is becoming more self-confident in the political and security sphere the well-defined roles in Central Asia are about to change. For decades, Russia has been the chief political and military actor while China rose to an economic powerhouse in the region (Kuhrt, 2021). Friction is also coming up in the Arctic, where China's Polar Silk Road gains leverage in a region long regarded by Russia as an exclusive sphere of interest. Most recently also Beijing´s solidarity with Belarussian leader Lukashenko illustrates China's approach as a Eurasian power, not hesitating to become active in former Soviet Union states (Мисник, 2021).
Is the Sino-Russian Alliance sustainable?
Up to now, the stable relation between Russia and China provides grounds to expect a sustainable and deeper cooperation in the next decades. Regardless of how rigid western politics will be, China's economic and political shift to Central Asia is in full swing. As Beijing needs partners among the states of the former Soviet Union a robust political alliance with Russia is inevitable. However, to counterbalance NATO in the long run, economic success and joint innovation will determine the Sino-Russian strength. But due to increasing Chinese dominance in various fields, the question is if Moscow and Beijing can institutionalize their relations, so that the asymmetry can be reduced or at least be contained. The more institutionalized the relations get, the stronger the Sino-Russian alliance will be.
Still both countries have different ideas on how to get along in the US-led liberal world order. Russia directly opposes and disrupts the liberal and rule-based world order for example with its interference in western elections and its military interference in Eastern Europe and Syria (Götz, Merlen 2019: 136). China on the other hand still believes that a new order in China's interest will emerge from the old, trying to increase its soft power and international leverage by using powerful narratives like the New Silk Road (Rolland. 2020: 2).
EU-China policy is about consistency and timing
The EU-China policy should be aware of the Sino-Russian rapprochement but at the same time should not overestimate its strength. To slide back into the cold war mentality will not serve Europe’s interest. For the EU, China policy is now about intra-European consistency and timing.
A China policy which aims at dividing both powers or one that is driven by the fear of bringing them closer together will lack consistency. For instance, German foreign minister Heiko Maas argued in favor of completing Nord Stream 2 warning to drive Russia and China into each other’s arms creating the largest economic and military alliance in the world (Maas, 2021). Eastern European countries heavily objected to this approach and the arguments coming from Germany. Instead of doing so, EU-China policy should anticipate fields of Russian-Chinese cooperation and work out a common strategy and position.
As concerns timing, cooperation with the new Biden administration will be decisive. The US President plans to visit Brussels for an EU-US summit in June, with China expected to be a major issue. To react to challenges coming from the Sino-Russian axis, transatlantic synchronization will be key, especially when China and Russia join forces in promoting an alternative model of government and challenge the rule-based world order.
In the long run it is important to move from a reactive to a proactive approach, anticipating challenges but also possible fields of cooperation. Disinformation and interference in elections will be a field where the EU and the US must face tensions in the future. On the other hand, the climate summit initiated and chaired by the US administration in April 2021 has shown that if leaders take the initiative and show the courage to make a political investment progress is possible even possible with systemic rivals and political adversaries.
Jonathan Lehrer is a graduate student of International Relations at the Technical University of Dresden, Germany. Previously he studied at Qingdao University and interned at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. You can find Jonathan on twitter as @lehrer_jonathan.
The opinions expressed here are those of the writers and do not represent the views of European Guanxi.
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