Author: Uma Purushothaman, Observer Research Foundation
The growing Sino–Russian partnership is evidence that the Western policy of isolating Russia has failed. The policy has only served to push Russia deeper into Chinese arms. Russia and China are planning to increase their engagement in Central Asia and will coordinate their policies in the former Soviet territories in Eurasia.
As Russian President Vladimir Putin took the salute at the 70th Victory Day celebrations commemorating Russia’s victory over Nazi Germany on 9 May 2015, at his right stood Chinese President Xi Jinping. While the celebrations were boycotted by most Western countries, 102 Chinese soldiers participated in the Russian Victory Day parade. In his speech after the parade, Putin noted that China was the main battlefield in the Asian resistance against militarism in World War II.
Sino–Russian ties have grown much closer since the Ukraine crisis. China, unlike the West, did not openly criticise Russia for its role in the Ukraine crisis. In 2014, Russia and China signed ambitious oil and gas deals worth billions of US dollars. Military cooperation between the two countries has increased. Trade has grown to around US$88 billion. And their cooperation in multilateral forums and on global issues is strengthening.
During the Victory Day celebrations, Xi and Putin signed two joint statements. These statements reflect their growing commonality of views on the situation in Afghanistan, Syria, Ukraine, Iran and North Korea. They have ‘agreed to coordinate more closely our joint efforts to help resolve the most serious global and regional problems. These include the Syrian crisis, the Iranian nuclear program, achieving non-nuclear status on the Korean Peninsula, and strengthening stability and security in the Asia-Pacific region’.
While this statement was expected, the second joint statement was surprising. China has expressed support for the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) being pushed by Russia. The two countries have decided to create a dialogue mechanism for integrating China’s One Belt, One Road initiative and the EAEU. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization has been designated as the body to coordinate between the two initiatives.
China has agreed to start talks for an economic and trade cooperation deal with the EAEU and to ‘study the long-term objective of establishing a free trade zone’ with it. Beijing and Moscow will cooperate in the stable development and regional economic integration of the Eurasian region as a whole. They will endeavour to ‘safeguard peace and stability on the Eurasian landmass’.
The EAEU project could soon be a reality. China can provide the financial and moral impetus required for the project to take off. The two countries have decided to ‘create a common economic space’ in Eurasia and reach a ‘new level of partnership’, according to Putin. And the agreement is mutually beneficial. While Russia will get access to resources from the Silk Road Construction Fund to develop its agriculture, China will get a reliable transit point to Europe.
The agreement marks an end to Russia’s hesitation about China’s One Belt, One Road Initiative. It is now on board China’s ambitious Silk Road Initiative that will connect China to Europe via Eurasia. Xi also visited Belarus and Kazakhstan — two other members of the EAEU — after his visit to Russia. With the two prestigious projects of Xi and Putin being integrated, the feasibility of these projects has increased.
Coming on board the Silk Road Initiative is a big step for Russia. It is an acknowledgement that China’s economic influence in Central Asia has translated into political influence. Russia now realises that it cannot match China’s financial resources and is slowly becoming a secondary player in Central Asia. If the agreements are implemented, there will soon be a condominium in Central Asia; Russia will play the security guarantor and China will be the largest economic player. This also means that the West might as well accept Eurasia as Russia and China’s sphere of influence. With both their giant neighbours agreeing, the Central Asian republics are losing space to manoeuvre between the major powers — their famous multi-vector policy might soon be ineffective.
Xi and Putin have met nine times since 2013. Several high level officials have also met in that time. With the latest joint statement, the Sino–Russian partnership has been elevated to the next level — the two countries are beginning to jointly carve up spheres of influence. If the rivalry between the US and China escalates, it appears that China will have Russia as its ally, an ally whose ability to overcome the worst conditions is legendary (as both Napoleon and Nazi Germany found out to their cost). Is the West taking note?
Uma Purushothaman is a Research Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.