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Strategic Factors

What will Russia-China ties look like during Putin's fifth term?

15 April 2024

On March 19, 2024, Reuters reported that Russian President Vladimir Putin is planning to visit China in May to meet with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping. This trip would mark his first international visit during his new presidential term, expected to extend until 2030. Although the Kremlin has not officially confirmed the visit, Putin has expressed consideration for a trip to Beijing, which he highlighted in his first speech after his recent electoral victory. During this address, he portrayed the relations between Russia and China as a cornerstone of global stability. This development prompts inquiries and speculations about the potential advancement of Russian-Chinese ties during Putin's term and its broader implications on the current global political landscape.

Factors Influencing Russian-Chinese Relations

The degree of rapprochement or divergence between Russia and China is influenced by various global, regional, and local factors, as outlined below:

1. International power dynamics: 

A key element affecting Russian-Chinese relations is the stance of Western nations, particularly the United States, towards both countries. Currently, Moscow and Beijing face strained relations with the West, which perceives them as imminent threats. This view is reiterated in strategic documents from the West; for instance, the 2024 Annual Threat Assessment Report released by US intelligence agencies on March 11, 2024, emphasizes China's escalating threat to the US's global dominance, along with Russia's adversarial posture. 

Similarly, NATO's 2023 annual report, published in March 2024, remarks the alliance's firm stance towards China. Jens Stoltenberg, the NATO Secretary-General, remarked that Beijing's values and interests clash with those of the West and highlighted its strengthening alliance with Moscow. This rapprochement between Moscow and Beijing has raised concerns in Washington and other Western capitals, prompting them to adopt several strategies to mitigate these two nations' rising influence. These strategies include increased military expenditures, enhancements in cybersecurity, and economic initiatives aimed at decreasing dependence on Russia and China.

2. Leadership dynamics: 

The roles of Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin are crucial in shaping the bilateral ties between their nations. The significant influence of leadership on the development and enhancement of Russo-Chinese relations is evident, given that Xi and Putin are expected to remain in power until 2028 and 2030, respectively. The prospect of continued leadership suggests that relations between Moscow and Beijing will likely experience further growth and advancement. Both leaders share numerous traits and a similar style of thinking, which facilitates their cooperation. Xi refers to Putin as "an old and dear friend," highlighting their personal solid connection. They have also participated in over 40 summit meetings, with their most recent encounter at the Belt and Road Summit in Beijing in October 2023, where Putin was the guest of honor. Additionally, Xi has made nine visits to Russia, further cementing the personal and diplomatic bonds that drive the strategic partnership between the two countries.

3. Impact of the Ukrainian conflict: 

The ongoing conflict in Ukraine, initiated by Russia, serves as a significant catalyst for the strengthening of ties between Russia and China, particularly in their relations with the West. This situation has not only tested the bilateral relationship between Russia and China but has also posed a significant challenge to Chinese diplomacy. Facing considerable political pressure from the United States and other Western nations, China's diplomatic stance has been scrutinized. Furthermore, the conflict reinforced Moscow and Beijing's relationship, specifically evident when China chose to abstain from voting against Russia in the United Nations Security Council. This decision, along with increased collaboration between the two countries in various international institutions, highlights the deepening strategic partnership amidst global geopolitical shifts. 

4. Economic Challenges in Russia and China: 

The economies of Russia and China have recently encountered a series of significant challenges that have adversely affected their performance and growth rates. For Russia, the repercussions of the Ukrainian conflict, coupled with Western economic sanctions, have tested the resilience of its economy. Despite some endurance, Russia faces multiple hurdles, such as high inflation, the economic burdens of ongoing conflict, currency fluctuations, and a significant labor force decline—approximately 4.8 million workers in 2023, with continued impacts anticipated in 2024. These factors could further hinder Russia's economic growth. Additionally, the war has caused long-term detrimental effects on the Russian economy, including a diminished share in the European energy market, particularly oil, a depreciation of the Russian ruble, and setbacks in technology sectors.

Conversely, China, as the world's second-largest economy, confronts its own set of internal and external challenges, which have led to a sluggish economic recovery post-COVID-19. In the last reported period, China's GDP grew by only 5.2%, marking its slowest pace in over three decades. Critical issues include a crisis in the real estate sector, a growing demographic challenge, high unemployment rates among youth, stock market fluctuations, reduced foreign investments, and escalating trade tensions with the United States and its allies. These crises collectively contribute to the complexities of China's economic landscape in the post-pandemic era.

Motivators for Rapprochement

Given the complex global landscape, there are several internal and external factors driving Russia and China toward rapprochement at this time, which can be summarized as follows:

1. Political support: 

Both Moscow and Beijing are keen to secure each other's support concerning their core issues and fundamental interests. The relationship between the two countries is grounded in mutual interests, with a deep understanding of each other's security, military, and political priorities. This is reflected in Putin's recent emphasis on the significance of Russia's relations with China during his victory speech after the elections. He highlighted Russia's support for China on the Taiwan issue, underscoring the depth of their alliance and cooperation. Beijing's support for Moscow is also evident in its backing during the Ukrainian conflict, congratulations to Putin on his re-election, and the Chinese President's expressions of sympathy following a recent terrorist attack claimed by ISIS in Russia, reaffirming China's commitment to supporting Russian efforts to maintain security and stability.

Furthermore, China has assisted Russia in mitigating the impact of Western sanctions related to the Ukrainian conflict by facilitating access to non-Western products and helping Russia circumvent Western sanctions.

2. Ensuring security and stability: 

For Beijing, enhancing relations with Russia is pivotal in ensuring its own security and stability, especially considering their shared 4,300-kilometer border. Russia's relative stability offers China significant strategic benefits, especially in the event of a serious external crisis. This partnership also contributes to the security and stability across Eurasia, a region of strategic importance to China's security and economic interests. Consequently, this relationship allows Beijing to focus more of its resources and military efforts on its coastal regions and surrounding seas, including areas like Taiwan.

3. Mutual economic and commercial interests: 

China seeks  several economic advantages from enhancing its relations with Russia. Moscow serves as a crucial energy supplier for Beijing, supporting China's goals of internationalizing the yuan and developing robust alternatives to Western financial systems. Additionally, China benefits from access to Russian commodities and resources, such as oil and gas, at competitive prices and leverages Russia's extensive natural wealth.

Conversely, Russia looks to China to mitigate the impact of Western economic sanctions imposed due to its actions in Ukraine. Under these sanctions, China acts as an essential economic lifeline for Russia , supplying technology and commodities previously accessible from Western nations. Both countries are also motivated by the prospect of reducing their reliance on the US dollar in their commercial and financial transactions. Discussions between Moscow and Beijing are focused on integrating their financial systems, aiming to challenge the global dominance of the US dollar.

4. Building a multipolar world order: 

Russia and China are aligned in their ambitions to establish a multilateral international system, positioning themselves as proponents of an alternative to the American-led global order. This vision requires forging robust partnerships with key regional and international players, with Russia being a significant ally for China in this endeavor. In its latest declaration of foreign policy principles, which took effect on March 31, 2023, Moscow underscored the importance of creating an equitable and sustainable global order. Such an order aims to provide robust security, preserve cultural and civilizational identities, and offer equal development opportunities to all nations. Both nations advocate for a multipolar world, viewing it as essential to achieving these goals and reshaping global dynamics. 

5. Washington's role in promoting rapprochement between Russia and China: 

US policy towards China and Russia, which identifies them as strategic rivals, is a significant factor driving the two nations to strengthen their rapprochement. This is particularly evident as Washington aims to contain their influence and prevent them from playing an effective role in shaping international interactions. This approach is a cornerstone of US foreign policy, aimed at maintaining its dominance over the international system. The perceived threat of containment by the US has incentivized Moscow and Beijing to align more closely, reinforcing their collaboration to counteract American initiatives. 

6. Confronting common threats: 

Russia and China face a range of common threats and risks that have galvanized their efforts to deepen their rapprochement. This alignment is particularly pronounced given their shared perspective on the nature of these threats. Key among these are the unilateral sanctions imposed by the United States and some European countries, as well as perceived threats from NATO and its eastward expansion towards Russian borders. These challenges have prompted both nations to fortify their alliance as they navigate the complexities of the current geopolitical landscape, seeking mutual support in countering these pressures.

Future Scenarios

As we consider the potential extent of rapprochement between Russia and China during Putin's fifth presidential term, several scenarios emerge, with the most significant outlined as follows:

1. A growing rapprochement: 

This scenario anticipates a continuous and comprehensive improvement in Russia-China relations across all spheres, including bilateral ties and their collective vision for the international order. The mutual benefits derived from this cooperation are expected to drive both nations to enhance coordination and support for each other's core interests, both bilaterally and on a global scale. Economic and trade relations are projected to strengthen further, aiding both countries in navigating their respective economic challenges and mitigating the effects of Western sanctions on Russia. Trade between the two countries is also expected to reach new heights, potentially surpassing USD 300 billion this year, following a record high of more than USD 240 billion in 2023, which already exceeded their joint target of USD 200 billion by 2024.

2. A military alliance: 

This scenario suggests that Russia and China's comprehensive strategic partnership could evolve into a military alliance in response to existential threats or risks that may jeopardize the sovereignty or existence of either nation. For instance, if either country were to face conventional or nuclear aggression from the West, mainly led by the United States, the likelihood of forming a military alliance would increase. However, several factors could impede this development. Despite recognizing the need for increased military cooperation and the importance of modern weaponry in ensuring security, both nations have historically eschewed formal military alliances in their foreign policy rhetoric. Additionally, obstacles such as China's economic vulnerabilities, the persistent US naval presence in the South China Sea, its proximity to allied countries, and Beijing's dependence on exports and foreign investments also pose significant challenges to the formation of a military alliance between Russia and China. 

3. Decreasing relations: 

This scenario envisions a potential decline in the rapprochement between Moscow and Beijing, attributing this shift to various challenges within their relationship. These include strategic competition for influence in crucial shared domains, differences in the nature and projections of power, and impending structural changes within the ruling elites of both nations as they transition into the post-Putin and post-Xi eras. These factors could create tension and recalibrate the dynamics of the Russia-China relationship, potentially leading to a cooling of the close ties currently observed.

4. Forming a Russian-Chinese axis facing the West: 

This scenario implies that Russia, China, and their allies want to form a common axis to oppose the Western axis led by the United States and its allies. The implementation of this scenario is tied to the potential outcomes of Russia's war in Ukraine. Russia's loss may result in further Western and American pressure on China, leaving it with no choice except to side with Russia and its allies in facing the West. On the other side, Russia's victory in the war will strengthen the Russian-Chinese axis while weakening the West-US axis.

International Repercussions

The following observations can be made on the extent to which the rapprochement between Russia and China may influence the form of the existing international order:

1. Inability to alter the current global system: 

Current trends suggest that neither Russia nor China, alone or in collaboration, possess the necessary capabilities to enact structural changes within the framework of the existing international order. The strengthening of ties between the two nations is seen more as a part of the broader dynamics involving emerging regional powers rather than as a definitive shift in global power structures. Additionally, the roles of China and Russia in international politics are distinct, with each country having differing capabilities and capacities that contribute to their individual and joint impacts on global affairs.

2. Challenging the US-led International Order: 

Russia and China, with their geopolitical standards, military capabilities, and increasing compatibility, are enhancing their ability to influence the structure of the current international system. This enhancement boosts their roles within the international system and poses a significant challenge to Washington's dominance. Contributing to this growing challenge are several factors: the increasing prominence of Moscow and Beijing within the global order, the perceived decline in US leadership, diminishing European influence, and their success in forming flexible alliances. Furthermore, Russia and China are leveraging their military and technological advancements to broaden their regional and international alliances, further intensifying their challenge to the existing US-led order.

3. A multipolar world: 

Given their shared commitment to democracy and pluralism in international affairs, as well as their opposition to hegemony, power politics, and unilateral sanctions, the strengthening rapprochement between Russia and China is a significant move toward establishing a multipolar world order. The declarations from the leaders of both nations underline their determination to advocate for a multipolar world, especially after their relations with the US have deteriorated. This shift can be attributed to several factors: their united front against Western dominance in international decision-making, their collaborative efforts toward creating a more democratic international system, and their stance against the onset of a "new Cold War." As permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and active participants in various key international and regional organizations, the recent Russian-Chinese rapprochement signals a notable trend towards multipolarity in global affairs.

Putin's upcoming visit to China in May is anticipated to mark a significant qualitative shift in the relations between Russia and China. This shift is driven by a mutual desire to maximize the benefits of their comprehensive strategic partnership in this new era, covering all aspects of their bilateral relations and contributing to the formation of a new multipolar international order. This initiative comes in response to the ongoing threats posed to their core interests and those of their allies by the West, led by the United States. This visit opens up various possibilities for deepening rapprochement during Putin's fifth term, from increased reconciliation to the potential, yet currently unlikely, formation of a military alliance to counter Western influence. The depth and direction of this reconciliation will be closely linked to future developments affecting their ruling elites.