China-Russia relations: “The danger is to see the West alone”

Historically, what are the diplomatic relations between China and Russia?

The relationship between Russia and China is contemporary. During the Cold War, their relationship was strained. This is the reason for the rapprochement between China and the United States in the 1970s and the diplomatic recognition in 1979 of their bilateral relations. There is talk of post-Cold War Sino-Russian relations that were shyly put in place in the 1990s, under the presidency of Boris Yeltsin in Russia. The rapid impact occurred because of the war in Kosovo in 1999, when Russia positioned itself against NATO intervention and against the role of the United States. At the same time, NATO forces bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, sparking a protest from Beijing. This is the first time that the two countries find themselves on the same line when dealing with a major geopolitical topic, in the context of the post-Cold War. From there, there was a real acceleration, due to the coming to power of Vladimir Putin. On China’s side, tensions have become more pronounced with the United States.

In 2001, Russia and China entered into a partnership and began a real strategic dialogue: the two countries founded the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). This operation unites Russia, China, as well as four former Soviet republics in Central Asia: Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Since then, the SCO has expanded to include India, Pakistan and Iran. So the year 2001 marked a turning point in this ability to work together. For two decades, Sino-Russian relations have been strengthened. We cannot speak of a deep and ancient alliance, but their harmony has strengthened in a remarkable way. Today, the two countries are aligned on many subjects. We see this unity in the votes of the UN Security Council, in the opposition of the two countries to the war in Iraq in 2003 and in the same hatred of the West in general, and of the States of the States in particular. In addition to this, an exponential increase in the economy and commercial exchange between the two countries has developed.

How dependent are Russia and China on each other?

It is not a relationship of mutual dependence but an asymmetrical relationship. For example, the balance of power on trade issues is clearly to China’s advantage. This will create frustration, especially for partners in Central Asia. They have become dependent on China from an economic point of view and they remain attached to Moscow politically and strategically. We see rivalries and interests that the two countries do not share. On the other hand, China has every interest in seeing Russia more isolated in the economic and commercial landscape: this allows China to benefit from Russian exports of raw materials, and in particular energy, which it needs. For several years, we have observed the unstoppable rise of China’s power, both at the economic level and more recently at the diplomatic strategic level.

China has no interest in breaking this dynamic. Instability in the world and in international relations can have an impact on its own growth and influence. We have not seen any contemporary international conflict, even for decades, supported by China. The country is worried about conflicts and ruptures that will harm it.

In the context of the war in Ukraine, Beijing does not support Moscow’s initiative. But at the same time, this is good news for China, which sees Russia’s reliance on China’s economy increasing. Beijing is in a strong position against Moscow. And let’s not forget that China has important interests in the region, materializing in the “16 + 1 dialogue”. This cooperation format brings together China and 16 countries in Central and Eastern Europe. Beijing is the main economic and commercial partner of these different countries and this can be to its disadvantage. The accumulation of insecurity in this area could have a completely perverse effect on China. It is in no interest for Beijing to support this conflict. In addition, China has offered to take on the role of mediator and peacemaker.

Besides emphasizing their friendship with Russia, China has no intention of joining this war?

No, definitely not. And China has no interest in condemning the war, because Russia’s isolation is beneficial to it. China is far from the only country in the world that does not strongly condemn this conflict. And I’m not talking about countries that impose sanctions because the list is much smaller! We tend, in the Western world, to start from the principle that we comprise the world as a whole, but that is no longer the case today. India, for example, does not condemn this conflict because it needs its relations with Russia. Brazil and South Africa are very generous. So BRICS does not condemn this war. Ditto for many small actors who diplomatically condemned the war as they expressed it during the vote of the General Assembly of the United Nations. These are purely symbolic condemnations. They were not accompanied by the establishment of sanctions, nor by the support of the sanctions regime.

No country in Africa, Latin America or ASEAN has initiated sanctions against Russia. So it is important to show that Moscow is not isolated. And behind this absence of condemnations, China has everything to gain by posing as a mediator and interlocutor in the war. This is part of China’s ambitions to play a more important role in the international diplomatic scene and hope for a more peaceful, more multilateral world. Beijing sees an opportunity to accelerate the process of declining the West to replace the United States as a peacemaker. We must stop believing that this conflict has changed the ties between Westerners: no, this war shows above all the isolation of the West and the decline of the United States in the diplomatic scene! Twenty years ago, the United States would have been at the forefront of this conflict and this is not the case today. And China is taking advantage of this leadership vacuum to assert itself.

In the future, what are the consequences of Sino-Russian friendship in international relations?

This rapprochement, which has been slowly built and accelerated in recent years, is reflected in the desire for a counter model to the Western model. You notice this when you consider China’s power and Russia’s desire to become a great power again by reclaiming its aura on the world stage. But the rapprochement it made with China was not an alliance. Both countries are suspicious and need to find a fair balance in the face of the risk of potential competition that may arise between them. There is an unbalanced balance of power between Russia and China. Despite everything, there is a common ambition to turn the page on the international framework defined by the West.

Last February, we underestimated the importance of the joint statement between Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin, when the Russian president visited Beijing for the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games. This declaration in question is a one-page text, in which both countries condemn the expansion of NATO in the East. This is prophetic! This is the first time China has taken an official position on European security, apart from economic and trade issues. In this text against the United States, the two countries criticized what they considered to be the destabilizing behavior of Washington in strategic issues. And it looks like a real strategic partnership.

But we should not believe that a rapprochement between China and Russia is limited to these two countries. A host of developing societies are looking closely at the record of Western leadership and may support this Sino-Russian rapprochement, or include themselves in it. I see that there is a lot of imagination about Russian isolation in the context of the war in Ukraine. Joe Biden told the US Congress on March 1 that Vladimir Putin is more isolated than ever. But unfortunately that is not true. Today, we can no longer isolate a country when it commits atrocities. And the composition of the partnership between China and Russia will be stronger and will also extend to other players. Because of this, the danger is that the West sees itself alone in its turn.

Interview with Ophelie Barbier

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