A key feature of international relations in the COVID-19 era has been the doubling down by Moscow and Beijing on their bilateral alliance. Although this stems partly from Western hostility, there is an under-recognized warmth between the powers.
The latest evidence of this came on Wednesday when Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (李克強) and Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin met for their first summit. There was clear affinity between them as they discussed what is a burgeoning bilateral dialogue on many issues.
During the pandemic, this uptick 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 system would be based on the Russian Tundra satellites and Voronezh modular ground-based radar stations set up in China. It would provide advance information on potential incoming missile trajectory, speed, time-to-target and other information necessary for an effective interception.
That the integration of the countries’ early warning systems would enhance bilateral military integration and interdependence has not been lost on the West.
On Tuesday, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg warned that Moscow and Beijing pose an increasing threat to Western allies.
He said that although Russia remains NATO’s main adversary during the 2020s, the West must think harder about how to handle China and its military rise.
This underlines that Beijing and Moscow have been working more closely in the past few 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 US presidency of Joe Biden.
On China’s side, relations with Washington have become increasingly frosty since the pandemic began, and while Biden’s policy toward Beijing would not be identical to that of US President Donald Trump, it would have harder edges than that of former US president Barack Obama.
The US-Russia relationship has remained semi-frozen too. Although Trump sought to thaw ties, this has proved forlorn in practice, and Biden’s policy toward Moscow is likely to be significantly tougher.
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 COVID-19 pandemic, but also issues such as Huawei Technologies and the clampdown in Hong Kong.
Russia’s ties with the West have worsened after years of sanctions over Ukraine and Crimea, and concerns over Moscow’s alleged meddling in Western elections.
In response to this diplomatic estrangement, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) have asserted Russian and Chinese power in other areas of the globe.
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, 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 plans for numerous joint projects with China, including a new method of interbank transfers and a credit agency that seeks to create a shared financial and economic infrastructure that would function independently of Western-dominated institutions.
China and Russia, among others, are involved in creating alternative fora to the World Bank and the IMF, including the New Development Bank, which would finance projects in the BRICS nations — Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — and a related US$100 billion special currency reserve fund.
In the energy sector, the two nations have signed a US$400 billion natural gas supply deal, which would include a 3,200km gas pipeline from Siberia to northeast China and a second major pipeline from Siberia to Xinjiang. Moscow has also opened parts of its upstream oil and gas sector to direct investment from Beijing.
Chinese firms have also stepped in to provide Russian counterparts with technology, and Chinese banks have become an important source of loans for Russian businesses.
The boost in bilateral ties has also helped enable work toward stronger, common positions on key regional and global issues, including North Korea, with which both share land borders and have been long-standing allies.
So with Beijing’s 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, would help underpin this rejuvenated relationship, which might yet warm significantly further into the 2020s.
Andrew Hammond is an associate at the London School of Economics and Political Sciences’ LSE IDEAS.
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