- The Kremlin, as well as Russian strategists and Sinologists, believe that Moscow should not interfere in the US-China trade war.
- Russia, while it cannot make up for lost US trade, will tentatively explore further cooperation with China in energy, agriculture, and high-technology, based on pragmatic interests.
- A deepened and more coherent Russia-China alliance is not in both countries’ interests; it is unlikely to happen anytime soon.
US foreign policy plays a crucial role in Russia-China relations. Western sanctions on Russia, which came in response to Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, have accelerated Moscow’s rapprochement with Beijing. In the post-Crimea era, the two countries have cooperated mainly on political, economic, and security issues. They have also aligned themselves more closely on the international stage. For instance, Russia and China have taken congruent positions at United Nations Security Council votes, brokered enormous energy deals, and conducted joint military exercises. Currently, with US-China relations at the lowest level in decades, scholars and others are warning that Washington’s attempted dual containment of Russia and China will push the two countries closer together.
This piece analyses Russia’s role amid the US-China trade war by studying Russian official discourse and the opinion of Russian strategists and Sinologists. Secondly, this paper examines how the trade war could trigger further Russia-China cooperation in energy, agriculture, and high-technology. It concludes by discussing prospects of a deepened Russia-China alliance.
A Distance From The US-China Trade War
Despite the strategic partnership between Russia and China, official Russian rhetoric on the US-China trade war remains pragmatic and largely indifferent. Shortly after the trade war began in 2018, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stressed that Russia would take into account its own interests only, and avoid taking sides in the dispute. In May 2019, Russian Presidential Spokesman Dmitry Peskov emphasised that the US-China trade war is “not our war”, and that Russia seeks to develop relations with both China and the US independently. During the Saint Petersburg International Economic Forum a month later, Russian President Vladimir Putin criticised Washington’s use of restrictive non-market methods against Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications firm, but insisted that Russia had no reason to interfere in the trade war. This June, responding to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s call for a coalition against China, Peskov reasserted that Russia would never join coalitions aimed to contain third parties. Asked about Russia’s balancing role between the US and China, Lavrov suggested that Moscow is ready to offer mediation services.
Russian strategists have echoed the Kremlin’s view that Russia should keep a distance from the US-China rivalry. Sergey Karaganov, a former foreign policy advisor to Putin, published a report this May in which he advocated that Russia should position itself as a guarantor of the “new non-aligned movement”. According to Karaganov, Russia could become a “third power balancer” and lead a league of countries who refuse to choose between the US and China. Other Russian strategists’ advice is less ambitious and ideological. Fyodor Lukyanov, chairman of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, proposed Russia should prevent itself from being drawn into the conflict and stand on the position of “benevolent neutrality with sympathies for China”. Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, warned Russia against being undesirably dependent on China and advised the Kremlin to maintain equilibrium between the two superpowers.
Outside from this strategic circle, Russian Sinologists have also replaced the China-friendly attitude with a more realistic approach. Alexander Lukin, who once championed Russia-China rapprochement, observed that the peak of their bilateral relations has already passed, due to Beijing’s growing self-confidence. Alexei Voskressenski, another leading Russian expert in Chinese Studies, raised the question of how Russia could capitalise on the US-China trade war to build constructive relations with both the East and West, rather than align more entirely with either. Similarly, Alexey Maslov, director of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, even suggested that Russia could leverage US pressure to secure Chinese support for Moscow’s geopolitical agenda.
Potential for Further Russia-China Cooperation?
Both Russian strategists and Sinologists stand firm in advocating for further cooperation with China, but on more equal and balanced terms. Although Russia prefers remaining neutral amid the US-China rivalry, Moscow will not miss opportunities to enhance Russia-China cooperation, notably in energy, agriculture, and high-technology sectors. It should be noted that Russia aims not to replace the US as a Chinese co-operator but to cautiously and pragmatically advance its own business interests with China.
Perceived as a more reliable energy supply, Russian gas will become more attractive to China as Beijing seeks to reduce dependence on unreliable partners or routes. The trade war has substantially decreased US liquefied natural gas (LNG) imports to China, which have been replaced largely with mostly Australian LNG deliveries, alongside with Qatari and Russian supplies. Indeed, the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) has received 3 million tons of LNG annually since 2019 from the Yamal project in the Russian Arctic. At the same time, CNPC and China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) have also financed Novatek’s Arctic LNG 2 project in exchange for future LNG deliveries.
The US-China rivalry is accelerating Russia’s path to become the main natural gas supplier in China since Russian suppliers transport neither through the Strait of Hormuz nor the Strait of Malacca. The Power of Siberia pipeline offers China an additional land-based gas supply route, which will reach its full capacity by 2025. As the trade war drags on, China may increase its interests in the Power of Siberia-2 pipeline project, which boasts a larger capacity.
While the US-China trade war has mean Russia’s agricultural sector has increased its exports to China, total export potential remains limited. With China looking for alternatives to American agricultural products, Russian producers have found niches in the Chinese market—such as soybeans, pork, and poultry—but faced capacity and phytosanitary issues. The Russian Far East’s soy production, for example, is already at its peak, and Russia exported only 850,000 tons of soybeans to China last year, accounting for only ten per cent of China’s total soy exports. In comparison, China imported 17 million and 58 million tons of soybeans from the US and Brazil respectively in that time from. Although Russia has exported more pork and poultry to China, the African swine fever crisis and severe competition with Brazil limit the prospect of meat trade between Russia and China.
Russia has also intensified technological cooperation with China. This, however, is largely because of Moscow’s hope to address Russia’s technological weaknesses, rather than anything to do with the trade war. Given American dominance of the global semiconductor industry, Chinese telecommunications manufacturers remain cut off from US semiconductors and thus face significant challenges finding alternatives domestically or globally. Russia, however, could offer little help to China on this front as it has one of the slowest-growing semiconductor industries in the world. Meanwhile, since Russia lacks investment and has restricted access to Western technology, Moscow is becoming increasingly dependent on China for technological development. The Kremlin seems comfortable with both Huawei’s expanding 5G presence in Russia, as well as cooperation in artificial intelligence with Chinese firms. However, there remain concerns over the growing gap in research and development between the two countries and the potential loss of Russian STEM talent to China.
A Military Alliance Is Not Emerging
If the West, namely the United States, continues to decouple from China, Russia and China will look to cooperate more comprehensively. However, the two countries have no plans to build a military alliance, as Putin proclaimed last December. Forming such a formal alliance, complete with mutual defence obligations, is not in either the Russian or Chinese interest, as both countries are reluctant to surrender part of their sovereignty and room to manoeuvre. The possibility also exists that Russia would have to accept the role of a junior partner in the alliance, a step down from its current status as an independent global player.
The US-China rivalry may have bolstered Russia’s leverage over China, leverage which, in turn, could make Russia-China relations more balanced. Whether Russia-China relations are sustainable depends, however, on how Beijing will keep patience with Moscow, against the backdrop of its recent ‘wolf warrior’ diplomacy.
This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the China Foresight Forum, LSE IDEAS, nor The London School of Economics and Political Science.