Joined in their respective confrontations with the West, both the Chinese and Russian leaders are boasting about their burgeoning partnership. Yet there are fundamental reasons the love affair is unlikely to last.
- Analysis -
“Building a peaceful and better world, in a spirit of friendship, solidarity, and fair play…”
To that noble end, as stipulated by the Olympic Committee, the 24th Winter Games will be held in Beijing On February 4th.
Of course, these are no ordinary Olympics: as 20,000 Chinese volunteers are making preparations, there is growing momentum for a diplomatic boycott of the Games by Western leaders over China's record on human rights, with the White House having cited “ongoing genocide” as the main reason.
But as the West laments China’s abuses against ethnic minorities, its crackdown on Hong Kong and threats against Taiwan's independence, one political leader is nonetheless determined to attend in a spirit of friendship: Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Putin’s participation in the opening ceremony was confirmed last week during a one-hour video meeting between the Russian leader the head of the Chinese Communist Party, Xi Jinping.
The digital conference, taking place only days after the U.S. and other G7 economies condemned Russia’s military build-up on the border of Ukraine, is only the latest testament to a deepened cooperation between the two major autocracies of our time as their respective relationships with the West have further soured.
Moscow-based magazine Kommersant, Putin called the relations with China "a true example of interstate cooperation in the 21st century,” as rhetoric on both sides of the border boasts of the countries’ economic and military alliance.
Still, even if Putin’s presence and the Western leaders’ absence at the Xi-hosted Olympics will only further emphasize the contours of the current geopolitical map, the public marriage between Russia and China is far shakier behind the scenes. Here’s why:
The enemy of my enemy is my friend?
The driving principle of the Sino-Russian partnership will also be its first stumbling block. As both countries aim to surpass the United States in military power, a naval drill in October saw 10 vessels from China and Russia sail through the Tsugaru Strait separating Japan's main island and its northern island of Hokkaido, writes Kommersant. The maneuver is the latest of a long list of joint military drills in the last few years, ranging from strategic command and staff exercises, war games and bomber patrols.
But while the superior military might of the US is holding the eastern alliance together, a common enemy doesn’t necessarily preclude internal conflicts, and it begs the question: What would be Moscow’s reaction to nuclear tests or new military technologies appearing in China, or vice-versa? More likely than an exchange of capabilities and shared resources, the result risks turning into a new eastern arms race.
Fighting for export markets
As combined US and EU sanctions against Russia and China have dealt a particular blow to the raw materials market, the two countries now intend to grow turnover and redirect trade flows. Already, China has become Russia’s main export destination, followed by the Netherlands, Germany, Turkey and Belorussia.
However, the need to expand trade destinations for the agriculture, metallurgy, coal and chemical industries might ultimately split the alliance as both Russia and China will be forced to turn to the European market.
China has rapidly expanded its presence in Central and Eastern Europe in recent years, negatively affecting policy, management standards and the environment. This is stated in the report of the Bulgarian Center for Democracy Research, writes Radio Svoboda. The study also found that the expansion of China's economic influence in the region led to an increase in the share of coal-fired energy in electricity generation as well as a decrease in funds for compliance with environmental standards
Workers make mine carts in Jingjiang, China
Richard Moore, head of Britain's intelligence service (MI6), warns that Russia and China could revolutionize geopolitics with the help of artificial intelligence.
"Our adversaries are investing money and effort in mastering artificial intelligence, quantum computing and synthetic biology because they know that mastering these technologies will give them leverage," Reuters reports.
According to Moore, China is on route to gaining a technological advantage over the West, and cyber developments may soon allow China to develop a global surveillance apparatus.
Moscow and Beijing once had an alliance, and it did not end well.
Russia, instead, is said to rapidly be developing its hacking capabilities. However, the reality is that most existing Russian hackers are lone wolves, not government agents. Wars are won by government programs and scientific institutions, and they are virtually non-existent in Russia.
Proof of this is the failed Skolkovo IT Village project, whose huge buildings stand empty because it is impossible to grow technological superiority on a crumbling education system and critically underfunded science. There are strong, well-known IT companies in Russia, but they are private businesses.
The mismatch in technological development is also demonstrated by the lack of trust between the countries. In terms of cybersecurity, the Russian government avoids using Chinese information systems. And if mismatched profits from trade can be forgiven by a good friend, such a gap in technological development won’t be.
Different political regimes
Although both Russia and China can be considered autocracies, and Putin in his dreams sees himself as irremovable as his Chinese counterpart, Putin is not eternal and Russia is not a kingdom. That is not the case in China, where there is scant hope of the Communist Party leaving in favor of democratic elections.
Indeed, despite the superficial similarities between the regimes, the fact is that Russia is a more free country than China. Russians no doubt suffer from sanctions imposed on the country due to the actions of its government, but this also breeds a socially active populus and makes opposition leaders more popular, as economic realities inure people against state propaganda
Speculating on the future of Russia-China relations Kadri Liik, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations writes in a recent article, that authoritarianism is not the destination of choice for Russia, even with Putin sitting in Kremlin: “Moscow and Beijing once had an alliance, and it did not end well. The obligations of this alliance, between the Soviet Union and China, called for more joint action and mutual support than either side could accept.” Now is a new era with new leaders, but both nations know that pledges of goodwill go only so far.
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