By Andrew Hammond

Russia and China double down on anti-Western alliance

A key feature of international relations during the pandemic has been the doubling down by Moscow and Beijing on their bilateral alliance. Yet, while this stems partly from Western hostility, there is also an under-recognized warmth between both powers.

The latest evidence of this came on Dec. 2 when Chinese and Russian Prime Ministers and Mikhail Mishustin met for their first summit. There was clear affinity between the two as they discussed politics, security and economics.

During the pandemic, this increase in ties has been strengthened by bilateral cooperation on vaccines. Moreover, there are reported 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 on Chinese territory, and will provide advance information on potential incoming missile trajectories, 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 bilateral military integration and interdependence has not been lost on the West. Only on Dec. 1, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg warned that Moscow and Beijing were posing an increasing threat to Western allies.

He said that, although Russia would remain NATO’s main adversary during the 2020s, the West must think harder about how to handle China and its military rise, which he asserts will pose an increasing international challenge.

This underlines that Beijing and Moscow have been working more closely together in recent months not just to further bilateral interests, but also to hedge against the prospects of a continuing chill in their ties with the West, including under the impending presidency of Joe Biden.

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 U.S.-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.

Moreover, the relationships of Moscow and Beijing with a broader spectrum of key Western powers, including in Europe, are also increasingly strained right now. 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 alleged extensive meddling in a suite of western elections.

In response to this diplomatic estrangement, 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. On the political and security front, for instance, the two powers regularly hold joint “war games” on land and sea.

Moreover, they also enjoy an extensive economic dialogue, which has only deepened since Moscow’s annexation of Crimea. There are bilateral 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 an alternative 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.

And in the energy sector, the two states have signed a $400 billion natural gas supply deal, which will see an approximately 3,200 kilometer 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 also stepped in to provide their Russian counterparts with technology, and Chinese banks have become an important source of loans for Russian businesses.

The boost to the bilateral cooperation agenda has also helped enable (them to) work toward stronger, common positions on key regional and global issues. This includes North Korea, with which 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 bilateral 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 help underpin this rejuvenated relationship, which may yet warm significantly further into the 2020s.
Andrew Hammond (andrewkorea@outlook.com) is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.

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