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Russia-China ‘No-Limits’ Ties Maybe Alarming, but There Are Chinks in the Armour

For India, the path is perhaps obvious – deepen engagement with Russia as a counterbalance to China.

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Recently, there has been some heartburn in India over the ever-deepening relations between Russia and China. Much of it was sparked off by the visit of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to Beijing and the news of President Vladimir Putin's upcoming visit to Beijing in May. Putin had last visited China in October 2023.

Indeed, Sino-Russian relations are today galloping at an unprecedented speed. Bilateral trade between the two today stands at more than USD 240 billion. China is Russia's largest crude importer, sourcing 19 percent of its total crude oil imports from Russia.

Chinese cars occupied 49 percent of the Russian automobile market in 2023. From seafood to the fashion industry and tourism, ties are flourishing exponentially. And much of it taking place in local currencies, putting in motion what some call the "yuanisation" of the Russian economy.

The Chinese yuan was used for 34.5 percent of Russia's total export payments over the past two years, i.e., since Russia began its Ukraine operations.

China, which has announced itself to be "neutral" in the Ukraine conflict, has in essence sided with Russia.

Yet, chinks in the armour remain.

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Why China-Russia Ties May Not Be Full-Proof

For one, the "no limits" partnership has not prevented China from hedging itself against secondary sanctions. Hence, while Chinese consumer goods have quickly filled the gaps left by the withdrawal of Western companies from the Russian market, Chinese investments have not.

China has slowed down on its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects inside Russia while its shipments to Europe have carefully circumvented Russian territory. Moreover, even as it continues to purchase crude oil, gas, inert gasses, and grains from Russia, it maintains a diversified basket and drives hard bargains.

Key Chinese banks have curtailed operations in Russia, and a recent Reuters report said that half of Russia's payments to China were being made through middlemen. Сhina founded the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) with Russia among the founders, and announced the suspension of projects related to Russia and Belarus in 2022.

Secondly, the threat of Chinese migrants, especially in the Far East is an issue that continues to spook Russia. Part of the reason that Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his visit to Vladivostok had discussions on opening up Russia's far eastern market to Indian labour was to counter Chinese migration in far more controlled and manageable ways.

While Russia is aggressively wooing Chinese tourists, even allowing for visa-free group travels, it recently announced that it was not about to scrap the visa regime in general for Chinese visitors.

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Difference in Approach

Last year, soon after the BRICS summit in Johannesburg, China in a routine feature, unveiled its map not only showing Aksai Chin and Arunachal Pradesh as its territory but also the disputed territory with Russia of Bolshoy Ussuriysky Island as its integral part. While India immediately denounced this, Russians played it down as a "misunderstanding " which would be taken up at the local level.

The Chinese, however, have their own view of their place in the world order as that of Russia. In a South China Morning Post Op-ed piece on 13 March titled 10 reasons China and Russia differ in their approach to international rules by Wang Yiwei, Director of the Institute of International Affairs at Renmin University of China, outlined how Russia and China, while having a close strategic partnership, had different outlooks and behaviour on the world stage.

While not possible to mention all the points to paraphrase Yiwei, China seeks harmony and the common good while Russia pursues differences. China leverages the rules of the world order whereas Russia is a product of externalisation. Both countries differ not only on international law and norms but also behave differently on the world stage and therefore, get different results.
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China stresses inclusiveness whereas Russia’s relationship with the West has always been more confrontational. While China has a comparatively restrained national character, Russians have inherited the tendency to move to seek expansion from their nomadic ancestors.

When it comes to engaging with other countries, the Chinese culture stresses the importance of upholding justice in the face of wrongdoing. Russia’s approach is often about beating others at their own game. While China observes the international rules itself, Russia asks others to follow the international rules and considers itself exempt from such rules.

Implicit in the Op-ed is China's righteousness, if not arrogance, and adherence to international laws and rules, the ability to live in harmony and cooperate with others, and Russia's failure to do so, conditioned by its history and political and social culture, resulting in expansionism and confrontation with others, primarily the West.
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Why Russia-China Collaboration Is Concerning?

Since Op-eds in Chinese publications, even Hong Kong-based ones like SCMP, written by academics of state-run institutions are rather deliberate, a message was conveyed. However, the Russian repartee was swift.

In an Op-ed piece written for Russian media Sputnik's Chinese site, Columnist Leonid Kovachich reminded China of its many disputes at the World Trade Organization (WTO), its refusal to recognise the ruling of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague on the territorial dispute between China and the Philippines in the South China Sea, its National Security Law for Hong Kong, bypassing its agreement with Britain and others.

Nevertheless, a point has been made by Yiwei. It is this that perhaps alarms Indian observers the most – not just the growing proximity between Moscow and Beijing, but the increasingly subservient role that Russia seems to be assuming in the partnership.
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Finally, and this may be China's underbelly. China is wary of Russia's pivot to the East and reluctant to Russian inroads into countries of ASEAN and North Korea, even as it takes advantage of Russia's preoccupation with Ukraine to push into Central Asia – Russia's strategic backyard.

Russian strategic thinkers have acknowledged that China is not interested in Russia's active participation in organisations like the recently held Boao Forum or those of ASEAN where China sees itself as the main driver.

In a paper authored in 2022, Sergei A Lukonin, Head of the Sector of Economy and Politics of China at the Moscow-based Primakov Institute of World Economy and International Relations, wrote, "One may wonder who is China for Russia in the current conditions: a friend, an ally, a partner, a neutral business partner, a tough negotiator, an implicit opponent? The answer can be – depending on the situation and interests at the given moment – China is all of these for Russia at the same time."

For India, the path is perhaps obvious – deepen engagement with Russia as a counterbalance to China.

(Aditi Bhaduri is a journalist and political analyst. She tweets @aditijan. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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