Fyodor Lukyanov: What you need to know about Russia-China relations, but were afraid to ask
So much has been said about Xi Jinping's visit to Russia last week, that the descriptive genre has been exhausted. What is needed instead is either details on specific aspects or some sort of in-depth socio-cultural analysis. That will no doubt be done by specialists in those areas, so we will confine ourselves here to brief answers to the most frequently asked questions.
Are Russia and China allies?
Both countries have limited experience of alliances and are not really inclined towards this form of relationship. Such a declaration implies a commitment and, more importantly, a limitation of one's own interests and capabilities in favor of the other state. If it is reciprocal, it is fine – and can be mutually beneficial – but the dominant attitude in both Chinese and Russian political logic is freedom of action and maximum sovereignty. As a result, both Moscow and Beijing shy away from describing their relationship as an alliance, preferring more fluid phrases. This has happened again. It should be noted, however, that the expressions used by Xi come perhaps as close to the idea of an alliance (as is possible in Chinese culture) without using the term.
Is the relationship equal?
The question of equality is largely arbitrary – it is not clear how to measure it. There is no formal hierarchy in relations between Russia and China, and in principle there cannot be such a system. It is difficult to compare the weight. China is, of course, much more powerful economically, and now also in many technological respects. However, Russia is a major military and political power in its own right. Indeed, when it comes to preparedness for adverse changes and shocks (let’s call it state endurance), Moscow is probably in the lead, but Beijing's room for maneuver in global politics is now much greater.
The question could be posed differently: who needs it more, and who should therefore do more to strengthen ties? At first glance, Russia would seem to need it the most – no matter how well you do, an acute conflict with a group of the world's most successful and influential states significantly limits your options. Thus, they need to be compensated by other partners which are no less important and therefore able to impose conditions. The most powerful of them all is China.
This is true, but there is another side to it. Beijing has finally realized that the time of peaceful and comfortable development is over. It is China that the United States sees as its main adversary for decades to come, and the pressure on it will only increase. Beijing has no more solid and reliable partner than Moscow; there is simply no other candidate. And the importance of such a relationship will continue to grow. Traditional Chinese pragmatism works in our favor.
Did China support Russia in the Ukrainian conflict?
The Ukraine crisis is a complex phenomenon with multiple dimensions. China's position on different aspects can vary. As far as the conflict between Moscow and Kiev itself is concerned, Beijing's position boils down to restraint. China does not see it as its right (or interest) to interfere directly, limiting itself to calling for peace and respect for common norms. Russia's set of claims against Ukraine, accumulated under specific historical circumstances, is not important to the Chinese, and is not their concern. There is, however, the other aspect – the conflict is central to Russia's relations with the West and, consequently, has an effect on the state of the global hierarchy and the very world order itself. Beijing is much more active here, taking a position very close to Moscow's and in opposition to that of the West.
Perhaps most importantly, China has no interest in seeing the US-led bloc succeed in Ukraine, which would significantly weaken Russia.
Beijing will therefore undoubtedly tread carefully, stressing the need for a cessation of hostilities and that there is no alternative, but it will not pressure Russia or take any action that would complicate its position. On the contrary, a gradual increase in support can be expected.
Has there been an economic breakthrough or will the economy remain the weakest link in our relationship?
The Western orientation of Russia's trade flows is a long-standing and complex problem. The current crisis, in which these relations have been abruptly severed on the initiative of the West, makes the task somewhat easier and leaves no other options open. Nevertheless, the restructuring will be painful and will take time, at least to build the infrastructure. The emerging political will (or lack of it) is stimulating a process of change in our country.
China is a global economic superpower, and its interests and needs extend almost everywhere. In strengthening relations with Russia, which is currently at a disadvantage in terms of external pressure, Beijing will carefully weigh the risks to itself. The Chinese are not going to blow themselves up for the sake of their northern brother.
However, Xi’s visit was crucial as a signal from the ruling Communist Party to all companies that they should work and look for opportunities in this country. This is understood in China. Russia's task, for its part, is to support this process in every way possible.