Wednesday, April 24, 2024
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What's really going on between Russia and China

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“Changes are taking place, the likes of which we have not seen for 100 years,” Chinese leader Xi Jinping told Russian President Vladimir Putin at the end of a state visit to Russia last month. “Let’s drive those changes together.” To this the Russian leader replied, ‘I agree.’

The seemingly improvised but carefully choreographed scene captured the outcome of Xi’s trip to Russia and the trajectory on which he and Putin have set Sino-Russian relations. Xi’s visit last month was the first to demonstrate public support for the embattled Russian leader. But the really important developments took place during closed-door, in-person discussions, in which Xi and Putin made several key decisions about the future of Sino-Russian defense cooperation and the arms deal they are likely to reach. are or can Do not make public

The war in Ukraine and ensuing Western sanctions on Russia are narrowing the Kremlin’s options and increasing Russia’s economic and technological dependence on China to unprecedented levels. These changes give China more leverage over Russia. At the same time, China’s fractious relations with the United States make Moscow an essential junior partner to Beijing in pushing back against the United States and its allies. China has no other friend who brings so much to the table. And as Xi prepares China for a period of prolonged confrontation with the most powerful country on the planet, he needs all the help he can get.

friend from a distance

Senior leaders of the Chinese Communist Party have openly discussed the need for a closer partnership with Russia amid what they see as an increasingly hostile US policy aimed at curbing China’s rise. Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang told Chinese state media after the visit that partnership with Russia is very important at a time when some forces are advocating “hegemonism, unilateralism and protectionism” and are driven by a “Cold War mentality”. – all CCP code words for US policy towards China. Putting this reason front and center is revealing, and explains why Xi chose to visit Putin in person despite the unfavorable optics of visiting just after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant to the Russian leader, The message of Xi’s visit was clear: China sees many benefits in its relations with Russia, will continue to maintain those relations at the highest level, and will not be deterred by Western critics.

To fend off growing US and European criticism of China’s support of Russia, Beijing came up with a detailed diplomatic plan, presenting a position paper on the Ukrainian crisis on 24 February, the one-year anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The paper lists a laundry list of talking points that Beijing has voiced throughout the war, including respect for the territorial integrity of states and opposition to unilateral sanctions. The lack of offering specific details on important issues such as limitations and accountability for war crimes is a feature, not a bug. Beijing is fully aware that neither Kiev nor Moscow has much interest in talking at the moment, as both want to keep fighting to their advantage whenever they sit down at the negotiating table. The Chinese proposal for Xi’s visit was little more than a showy decoration. The real action happened behind the scenes, in Private conversation between Putin and Xi

more than meets the eye

at the end of the trip, The Kremlin published a list of 14 documents signed by both China and Russia, including two statements by Xi and Putin. At first glance, these were largely insignificant memoranda between ministries; No major new deals were announced. Yet a closer look reveals a very different picture, one that Beijing and Moscow have reason to hide from the outside world.

The Kremlin did not publish the list of officials and senior business leaders present at the talks, in a departure from its usual practice. Their names could only be identified through footage and photographs of the summit and by reading comments made by Putin’s foreign policy aide Yuri Ushakov to the Kremlin press corps. A closer look reveals that more than half of the officials on Putin’s team who attended the first round of formal talks with Xi were directly involved in Russia’s arms and space programmes. That list includes former President Dmitry Medvedev, now Putin’s deputy on the presidential commission on the military-industrial complex; Sergei Shoigu, Minister of Defense; Dmitry Shugaev, who heads the Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation; Yuri Borisov, who runs the Russian space agency and who as of 2020 had spent a decade in charge of the Russian arms industry as deputy defense minister and deputy prime minister; and Dmitry Chernyshenko, a deputy prime minister who chairs a bilateral Chinese-Russian intergovernmental commission and is in charge of science and technology in the Russian cabinet. This group of officials was assembled to achieve ostensibly one main goal: deepening defense cooperation with China.

Although China has great influence in the Kremlin, it does not control it.

Even though Beijing and Moscow have not made any new deals public, there is every reason to believe that Xi and Putin’s teams used the March meeting to hammer out new defense deals. After the initial Xi-Putin summit, the leaders privately signed documents related to the arms deals and informed the world only later. In September 2014, for example, following Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the Kremlin sold its S-400 surface-to-air missile system to China, making Beijing the first foreign buyer of Russia’s most advanced air-defense equipment. became. However, the deal was not disclosed until eight months later. Kommersant Interview with Anatoly Isakin, CEO of Russia’s main arms manufacturer Rosoboronexport.

After the US Congress passed the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act in 2017, Moscow and Beijing stopped disclosing their military contracts altogether. This US law led to the approval of the Chinese military’s Ordnance Department and its chief, General Li Shangfu (who was appointed China’s defense minister in March). Still, on rare occasions, Putin has boasted about new deals, such as in 2019, when he announced Moscow was helping develop a Chinese missile early-warning system, and in 2021, when he revealed Russia and China were jointly developing high technology. Weapons

arms linked

China has been dependent on Russian military hardware since the 1990s, and was Moscow’s sole source of modern foreign weapons following an arms embargo imposed by the European Union and the United States following the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. Over time, as China’s own military industry grew, its dependence on others decreased. Beijing can now produce modern weapons on its own and has a clear edge over Russia in many areas of modern military technology, including drones. But to boost its own research and development and production, Beijing is still seeking to use in surface-to-air missiles, engines for fighter jets, and underwater warfare equipment such as submarines and submarine drones. Lures access to Russian technology.

A decade ago, the Kremlin was reluctant to sell cutting-edge military technology to China. Moscow was concerned that the Chinese might reverse engineer the technology and figure out how to make it themselves. There was also widespread concern about Russia arming a powerful country that borders the sparsely populated and resource-rich Russian regions of Siberia and the Far East. But the deepening conflict between Russia and the West following the annexation of Crimea in 2014 changed that calculus. And after launching a full-scale war in Ukraine and a complete breakdown of relations with the West, Moscow has no choice but to sell its most advanced and valuable technologies to China.

Even before the war, some Russian analysts advocated for China’s defense industry to enter into joint projects, share technology, and place itself in the supply chain of the Chinese military. Doing so, he argued, offered the best way to modernize Russian military industry—and without that progress, the rapid pace of China’s own R&D would soon render Russian technology obsolete. Today such views have become conventional wisdom in Moscow. Russia has also started opening its universities and science institutes to Chinese partners and integrating its research facilities with Chinese counterparts. For example, Huawei has tripled its research staff in Russia in the face of a Washington-led campaign to limit the Chinese tech giant’s global reach.

junior partner

Neither Beijing nor Moscow has any interest in disclosing details of any private discussions that took place during the Xi-Putin summit. How Russian companies can get better access to the Chinese financial system – that’s why Elvira Nabiullina, president of Russia’s central bank, was a key participant in the bilateral talks. This access has become important to the Kremlin, as Russia is becoming increasingly dependent on China as its main export destination and major source of technological imports, and as the yuan is Russia’s preferred currency for trade settlement, savings and investment. Currency is being made.

The participation of the heads of some of the largest Russian commodity producers indicated that Xi and Putin also discussed expanding Russian natural resource sales to China. For the time being, however, Beijing is not interested in drawing attention to such deals in order to avoid criticism of providing cash for Putin’s war chest. In any case, Beijing may be biding its time, as China’s leverage in these quiet discussions is only increasing: Beijing has many potential vendors, including its traditional partners in the Middle East and elsewhere, while Russia’s There are few potential buyers.

Eventually, the Kremlin may go public with at least some of the deals in March to demonstrate that Europe is willing to stop importing Russian oil and offset losses by reducing its imports of Russian gas. A way has been found. But China will decide when and how any new resource deals are signed and announced. Russia has no choice but to wait patiently and defer to the priorities of its more powerful neighbor.

Who is the owner?

Sino-Russian relations have become highly asymmetrical, but not one-sided. Beijing still needs Moscow, and the Kremlin may provide some unique assets in this era of strategic competition between China and the United States. The purchase of the most advanced Russian weapons and military technology, free access to Russian scientific talent, and Russia’s rich endowment of natural resources—the supply of which can be transported across a secure land border—make Russia an indispensable partner for China. Russia also remains an anti-American superpower with a permanent seat on the UN Security Council – a convenient ally in a world where the United States maintains close ties with dozens of countries in Europe and the Indo-Pacific and where China have few, if any, real friends. China’s ties are more openly transactional than the deep alliances forged by Washington.

This means that although China wields great influence in the Kremlin, it does not control it. A similar relationship exists between China and North Korea. Despite Pyongyang’s reliance on Beijing and shared hostility toward the United States, China cannot fully control Kim Jong Un’s regime and needs to tread carefully to keep North Korea close. Russia is familiar with this kind of relationship because it maintains a parallel relationship with Belarus, in which Moscow is the senior partner who can pressure, cajole, and coerce Minsk – but Belarus policy across the board has been compromised. cannot be determined.

Russia’s size and power could lull the Kremlin into a false sense of security as it locks itself into an asymmetrical relationship with Beijing. But the durability of this relationship, absent major unforeseen disruptions, will depend on China’s ability to manage a weakening Russia. In the coming years, Putin’s regime will have to learn a skill on which junior partners around the world depend for survival: how to manage upwards.