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Renewed Chinese-Russian friendship is a cause for international concern


Xi Jinping

Xi Jinping

Chinese President Xi Jingping has continued his visit to Russia, aimed at bolstering the friendship between the two nations and increasing cooperation. The visit, his first since officially taking office last week, demonstrates that China is seeking to overcome past suspicions and solidify its friendship with Russia in order to form an axis against perceived Western domination.

The visit will be seen by Western political leaders as a sign that dividing lines are being redrawn between old Soviet-era enemies and should be a source of significant concern.

I have previously written about China’s relatively slow military rise and about how Obama’s pivot towards Asia is deeply misguided. I believe my position on this was especially true given the reform potential embodied in the new Chinese leadership.  While I stand by my claims that China is not being overly aggressive for a nation of its influence and reach, a renewed friendship with Russia is certainly a concerning development foreign policy.

Russia as a nation offers very little to China in terms of future growth and development. The CIA World Factbook lists Russia as having a Per-Capita GDP of just $17,700 in 2012 (that compares to $9,100 for China and $49,800 for the USA), meaning scope for scope for trade development is limited. An agreement between the Chinese President Xi Jingping and Russian Prime Minister Dimitry Medvedev, negotiated during this visit, has called for the increase in Sino-Russian bilateral trade to increase to $200bn by 2020 (currently $88bn). Sino-American bilateral trade already stands at over $500bn. The historic dynamic of China relying on Russian assistance is being dramatically reversed in virtually every sector other than energy supply, with President Putin hoping Russia can “catch the Chinese wind in our economic sail”.

Russian usefulness to China extends primarily in the energy resources it can offer. Plans to triple the supply of oil to China have already been unveiled and discussions regarding the supply of massive quantities of natural gas are still ongoing. These deals will concern Western nations like the UK, which are becoming increasingly reliant on Russian energy exports as domestic supplies dwindle.

Enhanced economic interconnectedness is by itself nothing to worry about. What is most alarming is the military aspect to this visit. The President’s visit to the Defence Ministry (a first by a Chinese President) has been accompanied by a speech to the Moscow State Institute of International Relations in which President Xi called for closer ties between the two nations, indirectly raising the spectre of the Cold War axis by stating that:

“Strong high-level Chinese-Russian ties not only meet our interests, but serve as an important, reliable guarantee of international strategic balance and peace.”

While the Cold War may no longer be an imminent threat, tensions between Russia and the USA remain icy, with the two nations often clashing in the UN on issues such as Syria and arms embargos. With Aljazeera reporting that this trip might lead to increased arms sales between Russia and China, a closer friendship between the two is likely to rekindle Cold War-era worries.

The South China Morning Post reported the story with the subtitle ‘President does not mention US by name but Washington’s increasing presence in Asia is reason for concern in Beijing and the Kremlin’. There can be no doubt that Obama’s pivot is having repercussions. To push China towards Russia, a deeply secretive nation with rampant corruption, will only hamper opportunities for meaningful international engagement and Chinese reform. Should the President’s declaration that “We [China & Russia] will not become a threat to each other” result in a formal military pact, it would be highly likely that NATO would gain a renewed sense of importance in the eyes of the USA and its allies.

Hopefully this visit will provide a wake-up call to President Obama. The USA cannot coerce China through military might indefinitely and pushing the Chinese towards Russia will only serve to destabilise world peace in the long run.

While China may have gained a measure of energy security and a small economic boost from this visit it should seriously consider the wider foreign policy implications of a closer union with Russia which may not be in its interests.

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