Issues in Contemporary Russian-Chinese Relations

Although formally China still describes itself as a large emerging nation, in reality it is a major global power. China is transforming: its status is evolving and it is gaining political weight. Russian-Chinese relations are consequently changing, but the change should be proportionate to China’s rise. interview with Dr. Sergei Luzyanin, deputy director of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences, who shares his views and expectations for the forthcoming conference of the Valdai International Discussion Club’s Russian-Chinese Section in Shanghai on December 3-4, 2011.

The 2012 annual Valdai Discussion Club conference will be devoted to Russia’s Asia Strategy. The club’s Russian-Chinese section is to meet in December ahead of the bigger conference. What issues will be raised at that meeting?

The Valdai Forum is structured as a network. The Russian-Chinese section has been working in Shanghai for two years under the auspices of RIA Novosti and the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, and a U.S.-Russian section is emerging, which is also important.

As for the Russian-Chinese section, I would like to cite a few key issues which are sure to be raised at the next meeting in Shanghai, and which were discussed last year. One involves the changes entailed by China’s general rise – the new focuses in China’s global and regional policies, and the impact of these changes on Russian-Chinese partnership. This influence finds expression across the board, in geopolitical, regional and bilateral spheres. In each, it seems that China is growing stronger and exerting greater influence.

Although formally China still describes itself as a large emerging nation – fazhan zhongde guojia in Chinese – in reality it is more of a shijie daguo – a major global power. Although this is not officially discussed or even recognized, China is transforming: its status is evolving and it is gaining political weight. Russian-Chinese relations are consequently changing, but the change should be proportionate to China’s rise.

A number of regional issues emerge as a result of these changes. How should we structure and identify Russian-Chinese partnership now? How should we continue our cooperation within the Security Council? We know that Russia and China together blocked a European draft for a Syria resolution in so doing supporting the region’s stability; Russia and China teamed up to veto an important resolution for the first time – that has never happened before.

How are Russia and China cooperating on the Middle East and Iran, Africa and Latin America, Central Asia, South Asia and under the SCO? How are they coordinating actions under the co-development program for China’s northeastern region of Dongbei and Russia’s Siberia and Far East through 2018? These issues will be among those tackled at the Russian-Chinese section of the Valdai Club, and even sensitive questions will be dealt with.

Which sensitive issues? Do these meetings behind closed doors offer deeper insights into complicated issues?

By sensitive issues I mean, first of all, the current bilateral trade structure which is disadvantageous for Russia. Commodity exports have risen; China has taken the top place among Russia’s trade partners, while Russia is only China’s fourteenth foreign trade partner. This disparity in how foreign trade between the two countries is developing is Russia’s fault, not China’s. The two countries have different paces of economic growth: China is clearly growing much more rapidly than Russia. Consequently, the structure of their bilateral trade is also changing. This cannot be changed overnight, and is a serious problem.

Another sensitive issue is the low level of Chinese investment. At this stage, large Chinese investors – companies from Shanghai and Hong Kong – make vague statements of intent, but this is not followed by real investment at a similar level to their involvement in Latin America, Europe or the United States. China annually channels around $10 billion into Latin America alone. Its accumulated investment in that continent’s infrastructure, transport and energy projects has reached $100 billion. There is some investment in Russia too, but it is miniscule.

The third sensitive issue, in my view, is the need to coordinate Russian and Chinese energy policies in Central Asia, because Russia and China rival each other – even if involuntarily – in that region. China and Turkmenistan are jointly building a gas pipeline, while Russia is trying to protect its interests. There are price, technology and route concerns here. Although this is not a political confrontation – yet – these issues must be addressed and agreement found, primarily within the SCO. There are other issues, but even they cannot outbalance the importance of the political aspect of cooperation.

In summary, I should say that both the important prospects for cooperation and the sensitive issues will be thoroughly analyzed by experts from both countries at the Shanghai conference. They will also offer some practical recommendations. Even though they cannot eliminate these problems, they can still provide helpful expert guidance to their respective governments.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.