How the Moscow-Beijing axis became a genuine friendship

How the Moscow-Beijing axis became a genuine friendship
Chinese President Xi Jinping, Mongolia’s President Khaltmaagiin Battulga and Russian President shake hands. (File/AFP)

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A key feature of international relations during the pandemic has been the reinforcement of the alliance between Moscow and Beijing.  While this stems partly from Western hostility, there is also an under-recognized warmth between both powers.

The latest evidence of this came when prime ministers Li Keqiang and Mikhail Mishustin met last week for their first summit.  There was clear affinity as they discussed what is a burgeoning dialogue from politics to security and economics.

During the pandemic, this has been strengthened by cooperation on vaccines.  Moreover, there are signs that a new China-Russia missile attack early warning system is nearing completion.  This is based on the Russian Tundra satellites and Voronezh modular ground-based radar stations set up in Chinese territory, and will provide advance information on incoming missile trajectory, speed, time-to-target and other critical information necessary for an effective interception.

The fact that the integration of China and Russia’s missile attack early warning systems will enhance their military integration and interdependence has not been lost on the West.  NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg warned last week that Moscow and Beijing pose an increasing threat to Western allies. He said Russia would remain NATO’s main adversary in the 2020s, but the West must think harder about how to handle China and its military rise, which he asserted would pose an increasing international challenge.

This underlines that Beijing and Moscow are working more closely together in recent months not just to further joint interests, but also hedge against the prospects of a continuing chill in their ties with the West under the US presidency of .  On China’s side, for instance, relations with Washington have become increasingly frosty since the pandemic began and, while Biden’s policy toward Beijing will not be identical to Donald Trump’s, it will have some harder edges than that of Barack Obama.

At the same time, the US-Russia relationship has also remained semi-frozen.  Although Trump sought to thaw ties, this has proved forlorn in practice, and Biden’s policy toward Moscow is likely to be significantly tougher.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg warned last week that Moscow and Beijing pose an increasing threat to Western allies.

Andrew Hammond

Moreover, the relationships of Moscow and Beijing with a broader spectrum of key Western powers, including in Europe, are also increasingly strained.  In China’s case, this has been driven not just by the pandemic but also issues such as Huawei and the security clampdown in Hong Kong.  Meanwhile, Russia’s ties with the West have worsened after years of sanctions over Ukraine and Crimea; and concerns over Moscow’s extensive meddling in Western elections.

In response to this diplomatic estrangement, both and Xi Jinping have asserted Russian and Chinese power in other areas of the globe.  And one of the most striking features of international relations during this period has been the new warmth in bilateral ties too.  On the political and security front, for instance, the two powers regularly hold joint war games on land and sea. 

They also enjoy an extensive economic dialogue that has only deepened since Moscow’s annexation of Crimea.  There are plans for numerous cooperation projects with China including a new method of inter-bank transfers, and a joint credit agency that seeks to create a shared financial and economic infrastructure that will allow them to function independently of Western-dominated financial institutions.

China and Russia are also among the states involved in creating alternative forums to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, including the New Development Bank which will finance infrastructure and other projects in the BRICS states, and a related $100 billion special currency reserve fund.

In the energy sector, the two states have signed a $400 billion natural gas supply deal with a 3,200km gas pipeline from eastern Siberia to northeast China.  And they have agreed to construct a second major gas pipeline from western Siberia to Xinjiang.  Moscow has also opened parts of its upstream oil and gas sector to direct investment from Beijing.  Further, Chinese firms have stepped in to provide Russian companies with technology, and Chinese banks have become an important source of loans for Russian businesses.

The boost to the cooperation agenda has also enabled work toward stronger, common positions on key regional and global issues.  This includes North Korea, where both Russia and China have land borders and have been long-standing allies.

So with Beijing and Moscow’s relations with Washington and the wider West likely to remain strained under Biden’s presidency, both powers are likely to place increasing emphasis on their partnership.  While this is underpinned by a growing economic and political dialogue, the personal ties of not just Li and Mishustin but also Xi and Putin will underpin this rejuvenated relationship which may yet warm significantly further into the 2020s.

  • Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics

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