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9 January 2019

Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin were all smiles at the recent G20 summit, but relations between the two countries have stalled and tensions are rising, Pavel K Baev writes.

High-level bonhomie was on display at the G20 summit in Buenos Aires last December, as it invariably is at meetings between Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin – the irreplaceable leaders of China and Russia. Yet the exaggerated gestures of goodwill cannot quite camouflage the underlying tensions in this presidential pseudo-alliance.

Following the party-political line, the so-called ‘Connectivity Index’, a measure constructed by researchers at Peking University for evaluating the suitability of about 100 states for China’s Belt & Road Initiative, awards Russia the first place. Yet Russia is not formally a member in this initiative and consents only to its ‘link-up’ (sopryazhenie) with its Eurasian Economic Union project. A meaningful synergy in this construct is yet to be found.

The Ukraine crisis in spring 2014 prompted Putin to attempt an upgrade in relations with China. It was, indeed, the only way to consolidate Russia’s geopolitical positions in the escalating and deeply asymmetric confrontation with the West.

Expansion of Russia’s energy exports was supposed to be the main content of the upgraded partnership, and the gas deal between the two nations signified a breakthrough in political rapprochement.

More on this: Belt and Road: what's in it for China?

By the end of 2015, it had transpired, however, that the fast development of ‘green fields’ in Eastern Siberia and the construction of extra-long pipelines were tasks too ambitious for Gazprom, so the implementation of the deal was postponed into the 2020s.

Moscow’s offer of another pipeline from the Yamal fields was turned down by Beijing, and the volume of trade went sharply down, defying political guidelines.

That setback necessitated a new effort from the Kremlin to achieve the desired upgrade, making modern weapon systems, such as the S-400 surface-to-air missiles and the Su-35 fighters, available for sale. Beijing also made a step forward by taking a large share in the troubled Yamal-LNG project, which opened the door for Chinese companies into the Russian Arctic. Russia went as far in demonstrating its readiness to ally with China as staging a joint naval exercise in the South China Sea in September 2016.

All of this meant that security appeared to become the main track in the re-oriented partnership, but China opted to go slow in this direction because Russia escalated confrontation with the West. Its interference in the 2016 US presidential elections was against Beijing’s clear preference for Hillary Clinton, and it backfired badly with President Trump enforcing several sets of punishing sanctions.

The still-unfolding crisis in the US-Russian relations puts the China-Russia partnership on a steady path of deterioration. Beijing is reluctant to provide any meaningful support for Moscow and directs Chinese banks and investors to observe the sanctions regime. Cross-border ties have stagnated rather than blossomed.

More on this:Gas pipeline Russia... and how it's fuelling Asia

China has its own issues with the US, and since the promising first meeting between Trump and Xi Jinping in Mar-a-Lago, the exchange of tariff assaults has conjured the threat of a full-blown trade war.

The meeting at the G20 summit brought a pause in this escalation, but China has to brace itself for further shocks. Interactions with Moscow are irrelevant to Beijing in this crucial matter because Russia is an actor with miniscule significance in international trade affairs.

A key focus in US-China bargaining is the management of the Korean conundrum. Xi Jinping played a key role in delivering maverick Kim Jong-un to the summit in Singapore, which Trump still perceives as his great success. Hard data shows, however, that denuclearisation is not happening in North Korea, so a new spasm in the conflict is probable and quite possibly in sync with a clash in the US-China trade war.

More on this: China and Russia's uneasy dance

For it’s part, Moscow tries to pretend that it has a role to play in the political game of taming the Pyongyang regime. In reality, though, its contribution has been symbolic at best. In the Vostok 2018 exercises, it sought to demonstrate to China its capacity for projecting power, but the show was not altogether convincing. Russia has to concentrate the bulk of its capabilities on the Western theatre and remains unprepared for meeting security challenges to its vulnerable Far East.

The main value of the pseudo-alliance with Russia for China is in securing its long northern frontier, but this task is essentially accomplished. Moscow is far from happy with its growing dependency on the fast-risen super-power, which has – by the fact of its ability to get the priority attention from the US – curtailed Russia’s status to a secondary and declining power. China shows no inclination to enter into any arms control arrangements, and the failure of this crumbling ‘architecture’ reduces Russia’s status further.

Mutual irritation and barely hidden mistrust bode ill for the China-Russia relations, particularly since the economic foundation is so narrow. Moscow’s best hope is an escalation of US-China tensions, and Beijing counts on more trouble-making by Russia.

This piece is based on the author’s article on the Asia & the Pacific Policy Studies journal, ‘Three turns in the evolution of China-Russia presidential pseudo-alliance‘. All papers in the journal are free to read and download.

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