Russia and China: a convergence of interests

By Rebecca Fabrizi

Bilateral relations between Russia and China are on a high. Chinese President Xi Jinping has had more meetings with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin than with any other world leader, and the press in each country is unerringly enthusiastic about the other.

Whilst in Russia in 2013, Chinese media reported Xi as saying the Sino-Russian relationship was ‘the world’s most important bilateral relationship’, an unusually sweeping statement for a Chinese President. Cynics note that each finds this display of affection politically expedient, but it is still a meaningful relationship, up to a point.

The leaders of these two authoritarian nations have a strong, shared interest in promoting the primacy of the nation state and the unacceptability of any kind of colour revolution. They have a mutual confidence that the other will never promote dissent: a confidence they don’t share with the Europeans, United States or Australia.

Their convergence is centred on their opposition to moral interventionism and US hegemonic leadership, as well as a wish to develop economic ties.

As other relationships have faltered in recent years, this one has improved. This has been an incremental process since the normalisation of relations in 1989, and Jiang Zemin’s designation of a ‘new type of Great Power relations’ in 1995.

Both countries want to strengthen their own national security. Russia has pressing problems, mainly of its own making, to the south and west, and China is heavily committed to defending its maritime claims to the East and South-East. Neither can manage another security front on their shared border at the same time as pursuing these priority ambitions.

Russia also needs to ensure that China does not block its resurgence while its poor relations with the US and EU create a serious risk of isolation. China needs Russia to cooperate if its One Belt One Road initiative, putting China at the centre of Eurasian power, is to succeed.This mutual interest has supported their economic relationship, although it seems unlikely that China will ever supplant Europe as an economic partner for Russia.

Russian exports to the EU remain around four times exports to China, despite sanctions and increasing arms sales to China. But Russia’s difficulties – and perhaps a shared interest in irritating the US – have created momentum on some difficult deals: for gas exports, fighter jets and missile systems, on terms that suit China quite well.