The Russian authorities like to claim that they have a lot in common with China: both emerging economic powers, both permanent members of the UN Security Council, but above all both non-Western and perhaps even anti-Western powers. A recent report by the influential and well-connected Russian International Affairs Council argues that “the bond between Moscow and Beijing…will serve as basis for creating a ‘non-American’ world”. As Russia’s relationship with the West has deteriorated as a result of the conflict in Ukraine, Russian officials have talked more about a Russian ‘pivot to Asia’.
Economically, the countries are a good fit: China imports raw materials and exports finished goods; Russia mostly exports raw materials (especially oil and gas, which made up over 70 per cent of its exports in 2013) and imports finished goods (Chart 1 and 2). The Chinese economy dwarfs the Russian, however: $10.3 trillion versus $1.8 trillion in 2014.
Despite the strengthening of ties between them, however, China and Russia are unlikely to end up ruling the world together, for a number of reasons.
First, their economic ties are not developing as well as Putin likes to claim. While trade between Russia and China grew rapidly in 2009-2011, it has since levelled off. What is more, the EU remains a more important trade partner for both Russia and China than they are for each other (Chart 3). In 2013, the EU accounted for 42 per cent of Russia’s total trade, and China for only 16 per cent. The EU was China’s largest trading partner that year (and still is); Russia was tenth. The EEU, with its high external tariff barriers, is intended to protect Russian industry rather than facilitate trade with others; and for the moment at least, the EEU is not working on a free trade agreement with China.
Despite strengthening ties between them, #China & #Russia are unlikely to end up ruling the world.Even if trade between Russia and China grows dramatically, it is unlikely to match the trade either has with Europe. And in fact, trade between Russia and China, after rising slightly in 2014, is shrinking sharply as a result of the economic slow-down in both countries and the fall in oil and gas prices. In April 2015 (according to Chinese customs statistics) the value of Chinese exports to Russia was down 35.6 per cent, year on year; imports from Russia were down 30.1 per cent by value (as a result of falling hydrocarbon prices – volumes of oil and gas imports rose). The IMF forecasts GDP growth in China of 6.8 per cent this year and 6.3 per cent in 2016 (compared with 7.4 per cent in 2014) and a contraction in Russia of 3.4 per cent this year followed by growth of only 0.2 per cent in 2016 (after growth of 0.6 per cent last year); this suggests that a rapid increase in trade is unlikely to resume soon. A further sign that things are not going according to Putin's plan is the news this month that signature of a deal for China to buy gas from Western Siberia (by the so-called Altai route) has been postponed, apparently because the Chinese think that Russia is demanding too high a price for building the pipeline required.
Second, actual and potential bilateral irritants limit the closeness of the Sino-Russian partnership. Among the actual irritants are Russia’s sales of arms to China’s regional rivals, India and especially Vietnam. The sale of six Kilo class submarines to Vietnam is particularly provocative at a time of high tension between Hanoi and Beijing in the South China Sea.
Among the potential irritants is history: Chinese nationalists have not forgotten that in the mid-19th century Russia took more territory than any other country from China, under so-called ‘unequal treaties’. While the Chinese authorities have not themselves raised the issue publicly, Beijing has allowed nationalists to let off steam about it on social media, according to a recent article by Igor Denisov of the Moscow State Institute for International Relations (which is subordinate to the Russian foreign ministry). As long as the political and economic relationship is good, it seems unlikely that the Chinese authorities will let nationalist hostility go any further; but they have shown in dealing with Japan that if necessary they can exploit nationalist feelings as a way of applying political pressure at any time.
On the other side, Russia’s attitude to Chinese investment is deeply ambivalent: the Russian government is enthusiastic about China building a high-speed rail link between Moscow and Kazan, but not about the possibility of Beijing controlling a railway from China to Europe which would cross Russian borders. Chinese investment across their shared border is particularly sensitive. Despite a total lack of evidence, Russian nationalists regularly raise the spectre of Chinese settlers taking over the depopulated, mineral-rich regions of Siberia and the Russian Far East.
Third, and most important, the two countries are conscious of their differing development trajectories. Russia knows that it cannot compete with China’s growing power and influence, even in the former Soviet Union. For Russia, ‘convergence’ between the EEU and the Silk Road Economic Belt is a tactic born of weakness, designed to delay China’s takeover of Central Asia, and to retain some Russian leverage. Moscow knows that China is investing far more in developing Central Asia than Russia can. For China, connecting the two projects is a matter of managing Russia’s fears. It allows Beijing gradually to work around the protectionism of the EEU and build the infrastructure it wants in Russia’s neighbourhood without provoking confrontation with Moscow.
The priority for the Chinese is the success of Xi Jinping’s flagship project: the ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative. This combines the Silk Road Economic Belt and the so-called ‘Maritime Silk Road’, and is designed to improve land and sea connections between Europe and China. The Chinese have been enthusiastically promoting the initiative in Europe. At the recent EU-China Summit the two sides agreed to support synergies between the European Commission’s ‘Investment Programme for Europe’ and the Chinese initiative. The details have yet to be worked out; the mandarins of Beijing and Brussels might struggle to agree rules on public procurement (for instance). But faster transit times between the EU and China would be good for exporters in both; and improved transport links should increase investment opportunities in the countries along the route for European as well as Chinese companies – unless Russia tries to exclude outsiders.
In the end, Russia and China want very different things out of their relationship. Russia wants an alternative to Europe; China wants a road to Europe. So however ardently Russia embraces China, a real alliance will remain a hallucination: Beijing is likely to make use of Moscow's ardour but not fully reciprocate it.
Ian Bond is director of foreign policy at the Centre for European Reform.