Russia-China Ties: Too Close For Comfort?

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Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and Chinese President Xi Jinping launched the ‘Power of Siberia’ gas pipeline, via teleconference, last week. (Photo: en.kremlin.ru)

It’s a week since natural gas began flowing through a $55 billion pipeline running over 2,800 km from Siberia in Russia to China. Appropriately called Power of Siberia, it is the first of what is expected to be at least two more Russian pipelines carrying gas to various other parts of China. In Western eyes, it has confirmed the view that their most dangerous adversaries are drawing closer, posing new long-term strategic challenges.

But analysts in India believe the China-Russia relationship is far more complex, there are many issues that divide them, issues that have to be managed, other partnerships and relationships balanced, not to mention old suspicions about each other’s true intentions.

They were ideological allies in the 1950s but differing interpretations of that same communist ideology drove them apart and by 1966 they were bitter rivals. By 1971 China had normalised ties with the U.S. and the two worked together to bring down the USSR. Today, it is not ideology that finds them in the same bed; it is Washington’s trade war against Beijing and the same Washington sanctioning Russia for its annexation of Crimea.

Nivedita Kapoor, who researches Russia at the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) in New Delhi, notes no less than 30 meetings between Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping since 2013. “The earlier conception of the relationship being an axis of convenience has not been borne out as the relationship has deepened at the political, economic and military levels,” she pointed out.

Bilateral trade was around $108 billion last year, not great compared to China’s trade with the U.S. ($580 billion), or South Korea ($400 billion), but Russia has lifted controls on Chinese investment in the strategic oil and gas sector. Defence ties have surged ahead with Russia selling top of the line Su-35 fighters and the S-400 missile defence system.

Kapoor notes that Russia (like China) does not care for the Indo-Pacific formulation and has also nuanced its position on Pakistan (now seen as a key player in peace in Afghanistan) and on the Afghan Taliban. This is disquieting for India but the Moscow-Beijing relationship is not exactly smooth going.

“Russia’s S-300 and S-400 missile defence batteries are located in two places, outside Moscow and in Russia’s Far East which borders China,” says Dr Srikanth Kondapalli of Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, adding that “It could well be that the more advanced and yet to be introduced S-500 system will also deployed in the same locations.”

Dr Kondapalli says that Russia has not allowed any licenced production of its new military equipment by China, and has rejected transfer of technology. An enhanced Russian military posture in the Far East is also visible, suggesting fears of demographic invasion by Chinese migrants. Add to that the economic asymmetry which could reduce Moscow to being what Kapoor describes as “Beijing’s sidekick”. This is something Moscow will strive to avoid.

Nandan Unnikrishnan, who heads the Russia studies programme at the ORF, underscores another point: Russia’s foreign policy is driven by a strong political and security vision unfettered by economic considerations. “This is because they are a military power with a diversified military industrial and technological base. They tend to ‘securitise’ everything,” he says and will not compromise on Russia’s core security interests.

But if the divide between the West and Russia worsens, Moscow will have to weather harsher economic punishment. Evidently, the West hopes that would compel Russia, at some point, to break with China. For that to happen, much would depend on what the West is willing to offer and lifting of sanctions would only be a first.

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