Beyond the Russian-Chinese strategic alliance

Dr. Amr Mohammed Eldeeb
Latest posts by Dr. Amr Mohammed Eldeeb (see all)

Visit of Chinese President “Xi Jinping” to Russia in June 2019 marked a beginning of a new era of a comprehensive strategic cooperation and confirmed what was agreed upon at the beginning of Putin’s third presidential term in 2012 when the Russian Tsar visited Beijing. This new era featured the significance of protecting the multilateralism, the global trade system, the prestige of the United Nations and the countries’ sovereignty.

Actually, the most interesting point in such alliance of forces is that both parties have decided for the first time to cooperate in a number of files, not only in trade and investment, but also in the development of technologies, including information technology, with the aim of ending the monopoly the United States has maintained in this area for a while.

In addition, the idea of ​​a “new era” reflects the fundamental changes in the international system that began with the strategy of “USA Above All”, which was developed at the initiative of President Donald Trump and then both sides, Russia and China responded with these measures and ended with the trade war we saw between Beijing and Washington.

Indeed, deepening the Chinese-Russian cooperation came at the peak of the trade war that the US President launched on China. In particular, it kicked off on December 20, 2019 when the shipments of Russian gas to China were transferred through the “Power of Siberia” gas pipeline. Of course, this is an unprecedented step and deemed as the largest energy project. As per the relevant contract, 38 billion cubic meters of natural gas will be provided to China annually for 30 years, which constitutes a large “energy alliance” in Asia.

We can’t absolutely forget the project of the “Yamal” gas liquefaction plant in the Arctic region, which represents the fruit of Russian-Chinese cooperation in the field of gas and in the Arctic region that has geopolitical relevance.

Virtually, there is another positive side in the Russian-Chinese ties. For Russia, China is the only partner that cannot be compensated, and without close cooperation and mutual trust, its current isolation from the outside world, in all its reasonable and unreasonable forms, will become almost absolute. Still, the matter for china isn’t the same; Russia is an important partner, but not the only partner, so it is China that determines the level of relations and the pace of rapprochement.

In general, it became clear that Russia and China, and more precisely, China and Russia have sufficient agreements on good neighborliness, friendship and cooperation, but is there sufficient confirmation on the part of China to help Russia when the moment of truth (direct war with the West) comes? Is there a Russian willingness to enter any war for China?

Actually, they both do not have such narrow mindset, but rather Russia sees in China the market that will absorb the quantities of Russian gas if the Russian gas pipeline projects to Europe are restricted (the Northern Torrent Project 2 and the Turkish Torrent) and it also considers it a good investment haven because of Western economic sanctions. In return, China sees Russia as a good source of energy at cheap prices and a potential ally if things go wrong between China and the United States or between China and Japan, especially since Japan in the last 5 years is racing against time to form alliances other than traditional ones, specifically with India.

Discussing the negative side in Russian-Chinese relations, we must quote the opinion of Gregory Konadze, former Russian Deputy Foreign Minister, who is afraid of some Russian official data that acknowledges the existence of a number of Chinese migrant workers who reside legally in Russia, not exceeding 500 thousand persons.

At the meantime, there are unofficial estimates that give some other figures: 2.5 million legal migrant workers and about 2 million illegal workers. For Konadze, this large number of official data and unofficial estimates may indicate that the Russian authorities don’t reveal any concern on the issues of Chinese labor migration, although they should have been bothered, because the migrant Chinese workers focus mainly on the Russian Far East, whose population does not exceed 6 million, which refers to a slow Chinese occupation of these areas.

It should also be noted that immigrants from Chinese workers employed in trade, industry, agriculture and industrial services have long been indispensable for the economic life of the regions of the Russian Far East, but they do not have much contact with local Russian economic entities, and they prefer to establish their own companies from the very beginning. Such free activities are controlled, according to them, by the authorities of the Chinese border provinces.

Most of the Chinese workers come from these border provinces, where at least 100 million people live, but in fact Chinese immigrants rarely work in Russia for long, some come, others leave.

We can’t rule out that such model of Chinese migration may change if in the future the residents of the western provinces of China who are more likely to settle in new lands join the immigrants group.

Gregory Konadze added that long-term economic cooperation with China, which is the tone pursued by the giants of Russian companies, such as Gazprom and Russia Oil, raises some concerns, foremost of which are related to the huge contract to supply China with Russian gas, which Gazprom concluded with the Chinese oil and gas company in May 2014.

As per this contract, Gazprom will annually supply china with 38 billion cubic meters of gas, roughly the same amount of gas that Gazprom sells in the entire European market. Russian gas will come to China from the new Qianda field in the “Lynsky” area in “Yakutia” via a gas pipeline of about 2,000 km, which was built in 2016.

The end point of the gas pipeline is the city of Blagoveshchensk in the Amur region, where gas will be delivered to the Chinese border city of Heihe. The contract period is 30 years, estimated with 400 billion USD, and the delivery process already began at the end of 2019. Obviously, this magnitude decade points to a reality that China will become a monopolistic buyer of the gas flowing through a new gas pipeline.

The aforementioned trends and forms of Russian-Chinese economic cooperation seem to indicate the rapid transformation of Russia into being just a cheap source of raw materials in China. Thus, China will be fully able to dictate its own terms for these transactions.

Under the same logic, Russia can’t refuse using the Chinese migrant workers, while being forced to turn a blind eye to their presence and behavior, which is naturally fraught with growing resentment of the local population. In this regard, Konadze fears that the image of Russian-Chinese cooperation in the regions of the Far East could lead to a case of Chinese occupation of these remote Russian regions.

Such emerging picture of Russian-Chinese cooperation is somewhat worrisome in the future as the “friendly penetration of China” to the Far East regions in Russia will apparently be determined by China itself without a minimum of reliance on Russia’s opinion.

However, China probably has no intention of making a “friendly seizure” of these areas. Practically, absorbing the lands of a neighboring country, especially neglected ones, is risky and costly.

In addition, after Russia becomes an exporter of raw materials to China, sooner or later Russia may turn into its smaller political partner, forced to look at its bigger partner (China) when making major foreign policy decisions. If we imagine this, of course, it is not an easy attitude.

Let’s tackle a concrete example, in recent years, Russia withdrew quietly in some way from the process of solving North Korea’s explosive problems, and effectively pledged to China to represent its interests. Russia followed the example of Japan, whose interests the United States represents in the North Korean settlement, but for Japan the role the younger partner, the US, is familiar.

Undoubtedly, Russia with its brutal self-arrogance is difficult to get used to the role of the junior partner. Gregory Konadze’s has the same point of view, believing that China really wants to have the upper hand in its relations with Russia or other countries; its economic and demographic situation qualifies it to hold this role.

Nevertheless, Russia, led by Putin or led by one of his team after that, will not tolerate being subordinate to any other country, and this of course will make matters between China and Russia susceptible to tension, as they are always susceptible to the best.

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