‘Russia needs China more’: Are Putin and Xi in a marriage of convenience?

While Russia and China have drawn close in the face of Western sanctions, both have other acts to balance.

After China’s Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin pledged a “new era” of partnership, experts are questioning the depth of the relationship between the two most powerful rivals of the United States and its economic impact.

China and Russia have a long and complex relationship.

The assumption is that the two major powers sitting next to each other, each with a giant landmass, areas with extreme weather, and a long shared international border, would be natural allies.

While this has not been the case historically, now, after decades of rivalry, the two were finally drawn together in the face of Western sanctions on Russia.

Moscow needs powerful allies to help it configure sanctions workarounds, while Beijing, too, is on the lookout for allies to create a new order that challenges the US.

The latest meeting, for which Putin travelled to China, is “a significant diplomatic signal of the importance of this relationship”, said Elina Ribakova, a nonresident senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, especially as it came on the heels of visits by US officials, including by Secretary of State Antony Blinken last month.

The 43rd meeting between the two leaders also came in the wake of an executive order by US President Joe Biden threatening penalties for financial institutions that help Russia evade sanctions.

That December order is worrisome for Putin.

“He wanted to go to China to reassure them that [Moscow] would not do anything to get it into trouble

“Russia is a junior partner and this trip was a reminder [from it] to China that we’re here for you and we pledge eternal friendship,” said Ribakova, adding the latter sentiment has been echoed previously.

Last year, bilateral trade was at a record high of $240bn and China is now Russia’s number one trade partner. But Russia is only number six for China, as per a report by the Council on Foreign Relations.

Russia has also increased its international trade in roubles and the yuan’s share in the imports side has risen from 5 percent to 20-25 percent since the start of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, noted Ribakova in a December paper she co-authored for the Center for a New American Security.

The share of yuan in the domestic market has also increased from less than 1 percent pre-February 2022 to more than 30 percent now, the paper noted.

While they were pushed together by sanctions, the fact is that “Russia needs China more”, said Ribakova.

Firstly, as a buyer of its oil, especially as sanctions have curtailed its market, and also as a supplier of military components.

About “70 percent to 90 percent of components in the Russian military is Western made”, said Ribakova, explaining that China produces these parts for Western clients and manufacturers ship them to Russia, a process that offers “deniability for the West”.

“Russia will want to do everything it can to keep China close, especially as it is facing the very real threat of global isolation particularly from more consequential powers,” Michael Kugelman, the director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center, told Al Jazeera.

“If the war [in Ukraine] continues to rage on, Moscow will need economic support. But it doesn’t have that many friends who can provide the kind of support it needs, China being one of the few,” he said.

At the same time, while it is convenient for Beijing to have a competitive fuel source in the Middle East, it does not want Russia to become overly dependent on it and “doesn’t want that burdensome situation where Russia becomes a ward of China”, added Kugelman.

Risk to Indian interests

Analysts expect these ties to continue to grow in the immediate future, with China assisting Moscow where it can.

But there is another player in this mix that needs to be considered – India.

New Delhi, too, has become a key buyer of Russian oil from less than 2 percent to about 35 percent now, noted Ribakova.

While those purchases have helped the South Asian nation with its balance of payments, it certainly does not support Russia’s war on Ukraine, said Kugelman.

One reason is that the war risks bringing Russia and China closer, which in turn could pose a risk to India’s interests.

Russian S-400 Triumf mobile surface-to-air missile systems take part in the Victory Day military parade on the Red Square in Moscow, Russia
India is buying the S-400 missile system from Russia [File: Yuri Kochetkov/EPA]

New Delhi worries that its old enemy China – with which it shares a 3,440km (2,140-mile) disputed border – could exploit its leverage over Russia to pressure Moscow to scale back its dealings with India, including the sale of the S-400 missile system.

If Russia pushes back against Chinese pressure to curtail sales to India, that could jeopardise its access to badly needed capital from Beijing and that puts Moscow in a tough position.

India has also been a big proponent of the US’s Indo-Pacific strategy, which has promised support for regional connectivity, trade, and investment as Washington looks to build its network to rein in China’s reach.

India fears that China could use leverage and push Russia to alter its naval projection capacities in the Bay of Bengal, said Kugelman pointing out that, of late, Russian ships have been docking in Bangladesh and Myanmar.

For now, New Delhi does not have much capacity to do anything about this. But Moscow needs all the friends it can get. It as a tight balancing act.

Source: Al Jazeera