The relationship between China and Russia is moving toward a phase that highlights the centrality of their roles in the global scene. However, to interpret the impact Moscow and Beijing are having in shaping political and economical scenarios, it is necessary to comprehend the key events that have characterized their relationship over the course of time.

After 1949, when the People’s Republic of China was proclaimed, the socialist bloc appeared to be solid in the face of the destabilization of East Asia caused by the Korean War. In that conflict that started in 1950, China and the Soviet Union supported North Korea, while the United Nations gave military and medical assistance to the South. In that same year, the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship and Alliance was signed, leading to various forms of financial and diplomatic cooperation between the two countries.

These circumstances changed in the 1960s, when tensions defined the dialogue between the PRC and the USSR. Indeed, significant differences soured the debate between Mao Zedong and the successors of Josef Stalin – especially with Nikita Khrushchev, whose reforms and policies related to de-Stalinization were not enthusiastically received in China.

Alexander Lukin, head of the International Relations Department at the National University Higher School of Economics in Moscow, describes one of the many reasons behind the ideological divisions that led to the Sino-Soviet detachment. In his book China and Russia: The New Rapprochement, Professor Lukin specifies the difference between “rightist” and “leftist” that constitutes a starting point to understanding the two governments’ actions. The “rightist” group considered it important to have a transitory period to maintain a few capitalistic elements like a market economy and private property before the complete development of the communist system; the “leftists” opted for an immediate socialization of the economy without adopting such tools. While the first cluster prevailed in the USSR, Chinese preferred the latter.

This ideological split gradually became the basis for the cooling of relations between the Soviet Union and China, which not even the support by both countries to Vietnam mitigated. In the 1970s and 1980s the situation evolved considerably because of the intense phase that would shape the destiny of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. It was then that Chinese leaders considered opening communication channels with their counterparts, understanding the importance of the changing landscapes that could have an impact on internal dynamics for years to come. The Soviet Union had in fact set in motion a profound process of transformation because of the Cold War, and this turbulent phase would end with its dissolution in 1991.

Despite these historical vicissitudes, China and Russia now are building sound and effective ties oriented toward a common vision for an alternative and multipolar model within the international community, whose effectiveness is reiterated by strategic partnerships in the energy and military sectors.

During the Valdai Club international-affairs conference that took place in Sochi in the first week of October, Russian President Vladimir Putin confirmed that his country was helping China build a system to warn against ballistic-missile launches. Through such joint efforts, it is possible to promote China’s level of defense. Indeed, recent news should be read taking into consideration a series of large-scale military exercises that Moscow and Beijing carry out annually.

In 2018, for example, China was invited to participate in Vostok-2018, a military exercise throughout Siberia, with Russian and foreign units. Sean Cavanagh of the De Faakto Intelligence Research Observatory shared his opinion with me that China also has a strong appetite for sophisticated military technologies that are available in Russia, and thanks to which the Asian giant can improve its defense capabilities. Cavanagh furthermore forecast that China could surpass Russian development and technology as a result of borrowed expertise and mentorship in the arms trade.

Energy cooperation

But the two countries’ new strategic alliance is also marked by greater collaboration in the energy sector. Russia and China have always extended their influence globally thanks to energy projects, which also constitute an important dowel in the framework of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Specifically, the Sino-Russian energy partnership went a step further in 2014, when Presidents Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin finalized a gas deal between Gazprom and China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC). They signed a 40-year gas-supply agreement worth US$400 billion, which was to start this year to deliver 38 billion cubic meters of gas to China annually. According to the deal, Russia committed itself to invest $55 billion in order to build the “Power of Siberia” pipeline. After the Gazprom-CNPC negotiations, other projects were put in place:

  • A $500 billion deal whose main actors were Russia’s largest oil company, Rosneft, and CNPC;
  • A memorandum between Rosatam and China’s CNNC NEV Energy for the construction of nuclear plants in Harbin;
  • Agreements between Sinopec (China Petroleum and Chemical Corporation) and Russia’s SIBUR to produce and sell petrochemicals jointly;
  • CNPC and China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) secured a 20% stake in Novatek’s Arctic LNG 2 project.

The Arctic region plays a crucial role in the ambitious Belt and Road vision, and these two countries show a common interest in developing the potential of the area. Last August, Russian LNG carrier Vladimir Rusanov shipped 70,000 metric tons of liquefied natural gas to the CNOOC terminal in the port of Tianjin, China. This event was particularly relevant because Tianjin was receiving LNG via the Ice Silk Road, emphasizing the success of the Yamal LNG project owned by Russia’s Novatek, CNPC, China’s Silk Road Fund, and France’s Total.

During the Second Belt and Road Forum held in Beijing last April, President Xi underlined that Russia’s relations with his country had reached an unprecedentedly high level, and these words were confirmed by President Putin, who did not miss the opportunity to stress the significance of Sino-Russian operations in the Arctic with a scientific agreement to activate an Arctic Research Center together.

On January 2018, China published a White Paper to formalize its Polar Silk Road aspirations, but in order to take advantage of the new commercial routes, it is necessary to foster a pragmatic cooperation with Russia. By doing so, Moscow could limit the negative effects resulting from sanctions imposed by the European Union after the crisis in Ukraine thanks to a consolidation of its energetic leadership, and Beijing could benefit from a closer friendship with a powerful nation that is playing a big part in international relations, and which is also one of its major natural-resource suppliers – for example, Russia was China’s largest crude-oil supplier in 2018 according to data published by Worldstopexports.com.

The rapprochement between China and Russia could be an interesting way to balance states’ powers within the global arena, providing different lens to navigate geopolitical challenges.