Putin depends more on Xi than otherwise.As China’s position gets stronger, Russia’s become weaker.

 

London: What do you think President Vladimir Putin repeats to himself as he strides through the long corridors of the Kremlin on the way to his office each morning? Could it be the 2,000-year old mantra, “my enemies’ enemy is my friend”? It would certainly explain his foreign, defence and economic policies.

Putin started out as an avowedly pro-western leader. “Russia is a friendly European nation” he said in his memorable 2001 speech to the German Bundestag, delivered in perfect German and emphasising his view of the direction of Russia’s destiny. However, deeds began to speak louder than words as he later brutally crushed the Chechens and curtailed free speech at home. Western leaders looked on aghast at the contradiction between Putin’s declaration of European values and his ruthless, dictatorial behaviour at home.

During the following decade they became more and more suspicious of Putin’s corrupt Russia as suppression continued and journalists were murdered. In return, Putin showed disappointment, then anger and finally downright hostility towards the West. He was infuriated when President Barack Obama described Russia as “a mere regional power, threatening some of its immediate neighbours not out of strength but out of weakness”. Putin concluded that the door to the West was closed. In future Russia’s interests lie to the east; China.

The change of direction certainly makes sense, as both Presidents Putin and Xi Jinping are experiencing economic and geopolitical problems with the Trump regime, so why not get together and set aside differences for mutual benefit. The “bromance” between the two leaders, splashed across both countries’ state-controlled media, is not just a show of resentment at President Trump’s big-stick diplomacy, but of the geostrategic implications on the shifting global political and economic order. Trump has recently increased his hostility towards Moscow and Beijing, calling them “enemies of the US”. So, if both are the enemies of the US, the natural outcome is that both should be friends. Own goal, Mr Trump!

Just two months ago at the annual St Petersburg Economic Forum, a smiling President Putin raised his glass to Chinese President Xi. “In recent years, thanks to your direct participation, the relationship between Russia and China has reached an unprecedentedly high level”, he said. Noting that they had met 30 times over the past six years, Xi replied, “Russia is the country that I have visited the most times, and President Putin is my best friend and colleague”. The mutual admiration was clear as they later inspected the two giant pandas in Moscow Zoo lent by China, while local Russian children serenaded them in Mandarin.

In every good relationship there is always give and take. Russia has only two things to offer: natural resources and advanced weaponry. In 2014, shortly after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, President Putin flew to Shanghai with a number of Russian businessmen to sign a $400 billion gas contract, destined to last 30 years. “The Power of Siberia”, a far-eastern pipeline, is due to start operations by early 2020. Also agreed was a joint liquefied natural gas project, which will exploit the potential of a northwest passage.

President Putin has also made it clear that all Russian non-nuclear weapon systems are now available to Beijing. In 2014, China became the first overseas client to buy Russia’s most advanced fighter jet when it signed a $2.5 billion contract for 24 Su-35s. Last month, Russia commenced the delivery of the second batch of the S-400 long range interceptor-based air defence system to the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, having completed the first delivery in 2018. Weapons deals build good relations, as do the increasing number of joint military exercises.

But the relationship is subtly changing. For many years Beijing used to be Moscow’s biggest defence customer. Now the two countries are shifting towards more joint development projects. China has become less of an arms client and more of a cutting edge defence technology partner with Russia since it started developing more of its own weapons. Their improved stealth “Chengdu” J-20 fighter aircraft, a rival to the US F-22, is a clear indication of their rapid technological progress. China’s share of international arms sales has also grown. The Stockholm International Peace Research Initiative found that China accounted for 5.7% of the world’s arms exports in 2017, up by more than a third from 4.6% in 2012.

Less subtle is the dramatic reversal of the relative economic power of each country in only 30 years. In 1989, the Russian GDP was twice that of China; now China’s is almost 10 times larger than Russia’s. From being a junior partner, China is now by far the senior. The brutal fact is that Putin depends more on Xi than Xi does on Putin. As China’s position gets stronger, so does Russia’s become weaker.

This is a marriage of convenience, and with all marriages divorce can be just round the corner. On one hand, with Russia still subject to international sanctions and searching for ways to deliver economic growth, China represents a lucrative potential market for the country’s energy resources. Xi needs Putin less on the economic front, but recognises the potential for shared geopolitical interests. He sees the benefit of a powerful ally, one which also is a veto-wielding permanent member of the UN Security Council and who is equally opposed to the idea of US hegemony.

On the other hand, Moscow is suspicious of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, creating trade and huge infrastructure projects in Central Asia, a region Moscow has always viewed as its exclusive domain. At the Belt and Road Forum held in Russia last month, President Xi announced a $10 billion fund for infrastructure projects along the common border between China and Russia. But for all the fanfare, this simply raised fears of China’s growing influence in the region, perceived by locals as an expression of China’s de facto territorial expansion.

The two countries have a long common border and most of the vast expanse of the Russian Far East is empty, while Chinese populations press up against it from the other side. Here the borders are porous, allowing unlimited Chinese incursions. There is increasing resentment over China’s exploitation of Russian timber in the region. Hundreds of sawmills have popped up along the Trans-Siberian railway, all run by a Chinese community of about 100,000. Chinese timber barons ship as much wood as they can to China, without investment in manufacturing in Russia and without regard to the environmental damage.

Dark diplomatic clouds are gathering over this region, presenting President Putin with the greatest danger of conflict, diplomatic or military, with China and thus abruptly ending the relationship. Border clashes occurred in 1969, when the CIA described the situation as having “explosive potential”. Only in 2008 did the two countries sign the Sino-Russian Border Line Agreement marking the acceptance of the demarcation of the border. Astonishingly, publicly displayed Chinese military maps still show the boundary of China extending across Siberia to Lake Baikal, a huge area long coveted by China. A geopolitical time-bomb.

President Putin is acutely aware of the fickle and temporary nature of Russia’s relationship with dominant China. He knows that Xi is desperate to mend economic fences with the US. This is the meme of the young man walking with his girlfriend while eying another woman. Inevitably the current love-fest will end in tears. It’s only a question of time.

John Dobson is a former British diplomat to Moscow and worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s Office between 1995 and 1998.

 

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