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The Direction of Russian-Chinese Relations in the Context of the New Crown Epidemic from Russia's Position

November 15 , 2021 10:06 AM by GUAN Guihai

The new epidemic is not only a major global public health crisis, but also has a significant impact on the relations between major countries and the direction of the world situation. Among them, China and Russia, which have entered a new era of comprehensive strategic partnership, have maintained intensive communication between their leaders and relevant departments, alternately assisting each other with urgently needed anti-epidemic supplies and sending teams of medical experts to each other for support, which has also been widely recognized by the country and public opinion. At the same time, the positions expressed and actions taken by some Russian institutions and representatives on such important issues as the response to the epidemic, the intensification of the strategic game between China and the United States, and, in particular, the rather rare statement issued by the leaders of Russia and the United States on April 25, 2020, on the 75th anniversary of the meeting of the U.S. and Soviet military personnel in the so-called "Spirit of the Elbe River", have led to a renewed interest in the issue. The joint statement on the 75th anniversary of the meeting of the U.S. and Soviet servicemen on April 25, 2020, in particular, has given rise to a variety of speculations and sparked heated debates in Chinese academia and media. In this article, we try to understand the possible changes and changes in the relations between Russia and China in the context of the epidemic, as well as the principles of China's response.

In order to make a more comprehensive and objective assessment of Russia's position on China and the direction of Sino-Russian relations in the context of the epidemic, one basic premise should be accepted: in dealing with China policy, the Russian leadership will probably continue to maintain its current orientation on some issues, i.e., remain basically unchanged; while on other issues, some changes, perhaps even significant ones, cannot be ruled out.

1. Unchanging factors in Russia's policy toward China

The author believes that Russia's policy toward China will remain basically unchanged in the following aspects: First, Russia will continue to highlight its status as a great power and its international influence. Based on China's consistent position that in case of any crisis or problem in Russia, China will always clearly emphasize that Russia is one of the centers of power in the multipolar world. Russia will still rely on China's supportive attitude to demand that the United States change its unilateralist logic, its strategic thinking, its realistic policies and its practical operations that dwarf and stigmatize and contain Russia, and the joint Russian-US statement on the so-called "Spirit of Elbe" should also fall under this category. Therefore, Russia will continue to maintain close strategic communication and cooperation with China on major international issues such as the United Nations, the WTO, the World Health Organization, and the maintenance of global strategic stability and arms control regimes, and will strive to play the role of a responsible world power. For example, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (Сергей Лавров), speaking recently about the role of the World Health Organization, made it clear that anyone who is aware of the actions, statements and concrete decisions taken by the organization before and after will be convinced that this body acts efficiently. And, he stressed, it is indisputable that the World Health Organization has played and continues to play an important coordinating role to help combat the epidemic. He also reminded in particular that the United States is the largest funder of the agency and has priority in staffing core positions such as its secretariat, where most of the key positions are controlled by the U.S., and of course, as professionals, they make sober and professional decisions.

Secondly, the global economic downturn and the decline in oil prices, triggered by the negative impact of the epidemic crisis and the combined effect of the US "disengagement" and "withdrawal" attempts, are not in the interests of Russia's economic development, especially its energy export interests. Therefore, Russia continues to call at all levels for only international cooperation in the fight against the epidemic, including the convening of an emergency summit of the G-20 as soon as possible, instead of waiting for the planned November summit in Riyadh, and for all parties to refrain from blaming each other, shifting blame and creating artificial obstacles. In Russia's view, the West's practice of "shifting the blame" to China is a way to avoid the responsibility of sovereign governments to prevent and fight the epidemic, and in this regard, Lavrov also said publicly that when China is doing its best to help other countries in various ways and share its experience in fighting the epidemic, its senior counterparts in the West are openly discussing the so-called blame and compensation to China. This is absolutely intolerable.

Once again, Russia will not change its position on the autonomy of the internal affairs of sovereign states, including the mode of their respective responses to the epidemic, and will oppose the politicization and labeling of the epidemic and resist attempts to use the epidemic to attack and denigrate the political systems and values of other countries. The Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council, Andrei Kortunov (Андрей Кортунов), questioned those who accused China of using quarantine laws to stop the spread of the epidemic, writing that freedom is indeed the highest human value, but what can you do if you are confronted with the question: "Do you live in authoritarian Wuhan or do you die in free New York? What is the answer? Lavrov stressed that the strategic intentions behind China's initiative to build a community of human destiny, which some are questioning, are open to discussion and are guided by the formation of synergies, unlike the dark philosophy of those who call for the containment of countries such as China and Russia, which focuses on confrontational factors and malicious speculation about contradictions. He also said that those who arm themselves with this philosophy will increasingly lose their market after the end of the epidemic. Interestingly, when it comes to the relationship between institutions and the anti-epidemic model, the assessment in Russia is not so uniform. For example, in a correspondence with the author at the beginning of the outbreak, a Russian think tanker stressed that if China's institutions could not take the lead in overcoming the epidemic's demons, who else could the world expect? However, another Russian expert emphasized in his correspondence that Russia and China have their own national conditions and habits, and it is difficult to imagine Russia copying some of China's practices in fighting the epidemic, let alone accepting China's accusations that the Moscow city authorities are legally dealing with Chinese people who do not comply with the quarantine rules, while China is forcibly quarantining foreigners in the country.

2. Variables of the Russian position

However, the emphasis here on the relatively compatible positions of Russia and China on issues related to the epidemic does not mean that there is no risk that some differences between the two sides will be magnified, thus affecting the quality and efficiency of mutual strategic cooperation. In my view, Russia may make some strategic or tactical adjustments based on the international arena and the attitudes of key actors triggered by the epidemic, which may affect the pace and effectiveness of future strategic collaboration between the two countries.

First of all, Russia may more clearly and firmly consider its leading regional integration in Eurasia as a strategic focus, replacing the concept and policy orientation of economic globalization, which may be in contrast to the openness embodied in China's "Belt and Road" initiative. According to the professor of the Russian Higher University of Economics Timofey Boldachev (Тимофей Бордачев), various mechanisms of globalization, including the European Union, are powerless in the face of the epidemic and seem indifferent to the Italian request for help in the fight against it. In contrast, it is the member states of the Eurasian Economic Union, which is less globalized than the EU and in which Russia plays a central role, that have shown a strong desire for solidarity and mutual assistance.

Secondly, in terms of designing and arranging the future of international mechanisms such as the Eurasian Economic Union and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, Russia may take the opportunity of the epidemic to accelerate the integration of Central Asian countries such as Uzbekistan into the Eurasian Economic Union, even if they start as observer states. Fyodor Lukyanov (Федор Лукьянов), head of the academic program of the Valdai International Debating Club, noted that for China's neighbors in the Eurasian region (because of its leadership in overcoming the epidemic) self-confidence is an opportunity and a risk, for which Russia should be proactive. In contrast to the blunt statements of Russian scholars close to the decision, Foreign Minister Lavrov was more tactful, saying: "(After the epidemic) we will better understand how to look at cooperation in the post-Soviet space, the role of the Eurasian Economic Union and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, explore the 'G-20' and the BRICS countries The role of the 'G20' and BRICS cooperation mechanisms may be more realistic. ...... Russia and China have jointly initiated cooperation on research, development and vaccination under the BRICS mechanism." He did not mention that the high-level consultation mechanisms in the field of medical care and disaster relief in international platforms such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and BRICS have not yet played any role in the epidemic crisis, nor did he talk about what role Russia actually plays in it.

Again, some key areas of bilateral economic cooperation between Russia and China are subject to variables due to changes in their respective macroeconomic trends under the impact of the epidemic. For example, the mode of energy cooperation between the two countries and the implementation of long-term contracts for the purchase and sale of oil and gas may involve price adjustments and differences in the scale of supply in the future. For example, in order to maintain the balance between financial stability and economic stimulation in their respective countries under the impact of the epidemic, the issue of international settlement of bilateral trade will certainly be touched upon, including whether the settlement of oil and gas trade should be pegged to the RMB or the ruble. In addition, given the concerns about the spread of the epidemic, Russia's cooperation with China in the fields of agriculture, forestry and fisheries may be more precautionary in order to maintain its ecological security, with stricter import testing standards; more complex quota controls on the export of soybeans and other agricultural products to China; and a reflection on the proportion of infected workers in the large Moscow market may in some way strengthen controls on the cross-border movement of China-related personnel.

Finally, it is important to mention that a part of Russia is not missing the opportunity to talk about the prospects of a bipolar confrontation between the US and China and Russia's balancing role in it. For example, Dmitry Trenin (Дмитрий Тренин), director of the Carnegie Center in Moscow, believes that the course of the epidemic will lead to a further strengthening of the dominance of China and the East Asian model, and a further intensification of the bipolar confrontation between China and the United States. In such a situation, Russia, which considers balanced role-playing as its destiny, must reduce its dependence on China, not to mention its subordination to it, and it must not accept to be included in a China-dominated camp; on the contrary, Russia should strengthen its relations with important economies such as Europe (Germany, France, Italy), Japan and India, and achieve a balance in three directions: west, east and south, in order to counteract the impact of the rise of China and the expansion of nationalism on Russia. The future of Russian-Chinese relations

3. Prospects for Russian-Chinese relations

In view of the current state of affairs, a series of major bilateral and multilateral events planned to be attended by the leaders of Russia and China, including the Red Square military parade, the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, the summit of the heads of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the summit of the heads of the BRICS cooperation mechanism, had to be announced or considered for postponement due to the epidemic, but the frequency and quality of high-level communication will not be fundamentally affected.

If we look at the long cycle, not only have they been severely tested by the epidemic, but also the Russian-Chinese relations, which have undergone 70 years of transition from alliance to confrontation and then to a comprehensive strategic cooperation track, are increasingly mature relations between the major powers, which are neither allied nor confrontational, and are a model of interactive relations that are neither humiliating nor disgraceful.

No matter how the Sino-US relationship evolves after the epidemic, it cannot change the intrinsic and unique values of the Sino-Russian relationship - the neighbors who cannot be chosen and the lasting development, prosperity and stability of their respective countries as a precondition for each other. Accordingly, third-party factors only periodically or positively or negatively affect the depth and breadth of Russian-Chinese strategic cooperation, but are unlikely to change the general direction in which the two sides strive to avoid being enemies of each other. To be good neighbors, good friends, good partners, and strive for generations of friendship, never to be enemies, should not be empty words.

No matter how bad Sino-US relations become and how good Sino-Russian relations become, Russia cannot be expected to stand unconditionally on China's side and fight for China, or rather, it should not have such unrealistic ideas.