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A nation must think before it acts.
The following article is based on the author’s previous work: “THE PEOPLE’S REPUBLIC OF CHINA AND THE RUSSIAN FEDERATION AS STRATEGIC ALLIES“, published by the NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence, Riga: 2020.
When the topic of possible Sino-Russian convergence comes up, analytical opinions can differ dramatically. Some say the two countries are growing closer — others point to the historical issues sticking out from the carpets under which leaders Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping have swept them. On one hand, China-US frictions are bound to push Beijing closer to Moscow. Instances when China supports Russia in the UN Security Council — such as the 2020 veto on cross-border aid to Syria and the 2019 vote against the resolution on non-militarization of Crimea — are signals of a tightening partnership. On the other hand, increasingly nationalistic mentalities and China’s newfound taste for assertiveness makes a full-scale alliance unlikely.
A recent NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence research paper presented an analysis of the official communication of the Russian and Chinese governments during bilateral summits to establish the degree of Sino-Russian partnership. The research looked at sources in Mandarin and Russian to unpack the official stories the two great powers tell to frame their relationship for domestic and international audiences.
Although limited in its capability to predict the future outcomes of the Sino-Russian relationship, official narrative analysis is nonetheless an efficient tool for establishing what both sides consider to be their main drivers and obstacles. The article below presents some of the conclusions of the paper and argues the undiminishing importance of the Sino-Russian relationship for the Baltic states.
Russia has always been on the back of Baltic minds when it comes to cooperation with China. In 2011 and 2012, when China’s multilateral platforms in the region, such as “Cooperation with Central and Eastern Europe (16+1)” and Belt and Road Initiative, were first taking shape, China was primarily seen as an opportunity to diversify away from Russian transit, and parts of the business community believed that a good Sino-Russian relationship would be desirable. The argument went: If Moscow bought into Beijing’s vision of Eurasian connectivity, it would serve as insurance against challenging or sabotaging the transportation routes connecting China with Europe, including the Baltics. Sino-Russian friendship would give Moscow bigger fish to fry, and Russia would avoid using Chinese Europe-bound transit as a geopolitical tool, letting the Baltics benefit from China’s business.
Recently, however, the Baltic outlook on China has been changing, and, just as before, Russia has everything to do with it. China has been explicitly called a threat to economy, liberty and democracy in Washington, and the US has asked its partners to choose a side. Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia (as well as other European countries in similar positions) have opted for American security over Chinese business — be it by denying China’s companies a controlling stake in Klaipeda port, or by signing Joint Declarations with the US containing between-the-lines commitments to rule Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei out as a potential 5G network supplier. It is not a surprising choice: The US is the Baltics’ main security shield against Russia — getting on the wrong side of Washington in the name of business diversification is not a gamble anyone who has read Putin’s recent take on World War II would be willing to make. On top of that, the coveted Chinese transit that dominated the agenda in the early 2010s came up much shorter than originally expected. In this new setting, the Baltic countries are becoming increasingly sensitive to Russia’s growing ties with China to balance the US. Even a NATO-cleared passing of People’s Liberation Army Navy ships for participation in Russia’s military drills in 2017 didn’t fail to cause a commotion in Baltic and Polish societies, because far-away China had suddenly materialized into a pro-Russia military reality off the Baltic Sea shores. One can only imagine the level of anxiety such a drill could cause without NATO’s explicit show of support.
Whether or not growing Sino-Russian mutual understanding was previously perceived as having its perks, or is viewed as an alarming development today, Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn cannot afford to leave the relations between the two Eurasian giants unwatched. The new geopolitical reality has added a China dimension to the long-established Baltic analytical Russia domain.
“It would be no exaggeration to say that this level [of our cooperation] is unprecedentedly high,” said Vladimir Putin to Xi Jinping at the beginning of the 2019 bilateral summit talks. “At present, China-Russia relations are … going through the best period in their development. Both sides strongly support each other and defend each other’s vital interests. Political and strategic mutual trust is growing,” responded Xi Jinping. The event commemorated 70 years of the establishment of diplomatic ties and announced an upgrade to Sino-Russian relations. Xi Jinping’s signature phrase, “for a New Era,” was added to the previous title of the relationship, “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership of Coordination,” in the best traditions of Chinese diplomatic symbolism.
New Era or not, Moscow and Beijing are both well aware of the limitations to their relationship — the difference in size, economy and capabilities, the unwillingness to commit to a security alliance, and the lack of trust among their populations, to name a few. All of the above comes in addition to the unresolved historical issues stemming from the Chinese “Century of Humiliation” and the Sino-Soviet split. Still, both governments also understand that showcasing the positive sides of the relationship is beneficial internationally: For Xi, Russian support is important in the face of the current friction with the US. For Putin, Chinese support serves a longer-term purpose — it legitimizes “the Russian path”: an outlook that echoes 19th century Slavophile ideas that Russia must follow its own, unique path of development, and a belief that liberal ideology is being spread in Russia on purpose with the goal of weakening the country and robbing it of its sovereignty; society must therefore be protected by imposing conservative historical, cultural and religious “Russian” values. The mutual support is a tool both leaders use to back their decisions domestically.
Official narrative research shows that both actors used the bilateral summits of 2018 and 2019 to portray closer ties. Russian and Chinese government officials are deploying clear discursive tactics to signal unity, emphasize emotional kinship, steer clear of historical offences, underscore the benefits of cooperation and put domestic populations at ease. Both sides have identified the lack of trust and the emotional distance between the countries as a serious obstacle in deepening economic, local cross-border, and people-to-people ties. The Russian public is sensitive to overreliance on China, as it could lead to Russia becoming a junior partner with very little leverage. For the general population, this translates into a fear of Chinese companies facilitating local corruption by taking advantage of poor oversight, low environment protection standards and depleting Russian resources through low value-added energy exports. “Haven’t [you] sold all of the forest to the Chinese yet?” reads a comment under a press release on the outcomes of a 2019 meeting between then Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev and Premier Li Keqiang.
To counter this sentiment, Xi and Putin are using discursive strategies to put the Russian domestic population at ease, such as showing China’s dependence on Russia in sectors Russians feel are historically pride-invoking — like space exploration and the military industry — or underscoring sectors with high value-added potential — like IT, med-tech, and pharma. China cannot deny that over two-thirds of the Sino-Russian economic relationship is still energy-based, but the conversation is consciously shifted away from the extraction of hydrocarbons toward the promises of upstream investments into local processing.
China’s population, in turn, has held a grudge against Russia over the Far East. These emotions are increasingly bubbling up to the surface, facilitated by Beijing’s China-first rhetoric. In a display of anti-Russian sentiment, a post by the Russian Embassy celebrating 160 years of the Far East port city of Vladivostok on the Chinese Weibo microblogging platform caused a landslide of outraged replies. Chinese netizens used the historic Manchu name of the city, Haishenwai, stressed that the region was in fact Chinese lands, and bitterly cursed the neighboring country.
In an effort to deescalate anti-Russian nationalistic sentiment in China, stories about Russian leadership using key phrases taken from Xi Jinping’s official political communications — such as “for the New Era” and “community of shared destiny” — are specially disseminated through the Chinese media to demonstrate Russian respect for a new, strong China. In addition, the story of the affectionate and cordial relationship between Putin and Xi is told in both countries as a personification of the friendship between the nations. In an interview published on the Chinese MFA website and later quoted by Russia Today, Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Le Yucheng recounts: “Over the past six years, the two leaders have met 30 times, five times a year on average. They have travelled on a high-speed train together, watched hockey, prepared jianbing [Chinese traditional street food], and rode along the Neva River.”
Further, the narrative of the “US government turning its back on multilateralism” is ever-present in statements and publications on Sino-Russian cooperation on both sides, in outlets for domestic and external consumption alike. This demonstrates awareness that opposition to the US is a significant and common interest for both governments. The Russian side, however, is weary of the unstable nature of such a basis for cooperation, and the general improbability of “decoupling” the US from China. It is using the momentum of having Beijing’s attention to present a less reactive agenda, searching for examples of cooperation unaffected by the Sino-US dynamic, such as aerospace, pharma, and cooperation between municipalities. While jointly arguing for a bigger global role for themselves in light of the US “withdrawal,” both sides are nevertheless careful not to feed the international perception of Russia and China teaming up to overthrow the existing global order. Official press agencies of both countries, TASS and Xinhua, take pains to emphasize contributions to “global security” and “world peace, stability and development.”
Official narrative analysis indicates that the Russian and Chinese governments have decided to put a lid on mutual grievances as they signal unprecedented closeness of relations — both nationally and personally. They project a shared outlook on global governance, and paint optimistic projections of high value-added economic cooperation. However, one must not forget that if the political situation demands, official rhetoric of authoritarian governments can change overnight, bringing a cascade of implications for economies and societies — famously exemplified by the Russia-Turkey stand-off of 2015. Currently, a set of international and domestic factors is pushing Moscow and Beijing towards each other, but Beijing’s reluctance to enter a closer security partnership with Russia, and Russian fears of not having sufficient leverage over China, could mean that the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership of Coordination for the New Era has little room for growth left.
From the Baltic perspective, a decent, neighborly Sino-Russian relationship on the operational level is a positive development that serves the stabilization of transit and trade flows across Eurasia. More convergence between the two major powers, especially in the security domain, however, would spell China’s support to the Russian official worldview, which has been increasingly unsympathetic towards Baltic statehood. This, in turn, would result in a growing demand for NATO presence in the region.
The views expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.