China-Russia cooperation adds certainty for the world
Connectivity between China and Russia doesn’t just benefit the two countries. As a matter of fact, Russia plays a key role in the China-Europe cargo rail link.
Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Russia visit is closely watched by the international community. While much of the attention, especially for the West, is focused on China’s position on the Russia-Ukraine conflict, Xi’s primary mission is to further strengthen China’s ties with Russia. To China, this direction is likely to remain unchanged in the foreseeable future regardless of how the Ukraine crisis will be resolved.
A close China-Russia relationship, contrary to the Western perception, doesn’t mean that China supports Russia in the Ukraine war or that Beijing and Moscow are forming an anti-West alliance aimed at challenging the international order. Instead, it creates certainty for the international community.
Trade between China and Russia hit a record high level of $190 billion in 2022, a near 30% year-on-year rise. China’s trade with Primorsky Krai, the largest regional economy in the Russian Far East, surged by 43%. Globally, trade in goods only saw a growth of less than 5% last year, according to the World Trade Organization estimates. So, it’s hard to deny that the China-Russia trade has driven, rather than dragged, global trade.
The increased two-way trade tends to be seen by the West as a sign that China is deliberately providing an economic lifeline to help Russia navigate Western sanctions over the Ukraine crisis. In reality, however, this scenario is a natural result of years of momentum building in economic cooperation that began long before the Ukraine war broke out.
For instance, China has always attached importance to the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum and the Eastern Economic Forum, two major business events held in Russia annually. Xi Jinping in person attended the former in 2019 and the latter in 2018. There’s no doubt that such events have helped establish business ties. Data compiled by Russian authorities show that Chinese investors currently operate more than 1,000 manufacturing plants in Russia, which have created around 24,000 jobs for Russian workers. Meanwhile, the two-way trade has also been facilitated by closer infrastructure connectivity. For instance, the first highway bridge connecting China and Russia, which can accommodate 630 freight trucks, 164 buses and 68 other vehicles daily, opened last year. This project’s construction began in 2016.
Connectivity between China and Russia doesn’t just benefit the two countries. As a matter of fact, Russia plays a key role in the China-Europe cargo rail link, as the majority of the existing rail routes run across Russia. It takes 16 days for a freight train departing from the central Chinese city of Wuhan to cross Russia and arrive in Germany’s Duisburg. By comparison, maritime shipping from Asia to northern Europe can take twice that long. During the Covid-19 pandemic, these rail routes served as a trade artery between China and Europe at a time when the virus caused serious disruptions to air freight and maritime shipping. The overall trade between China and the EU rose just 2% in 2020, but the number of rail containers that ran between China and Europe via Russia saw a 34% surge in the same year. Europe might have seen more severe trade disruptions during the pandemic without China and Russia’s joint efforts in ensuring the stable operation of the rail routes.
Apart from trade, the China-Russia ties matter to regional peace and security as well. The two countries are arguably the most influential members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), and coordination between Beijing and Moscow has played an essential role in ensuring the quality of the cooperation within the SCO’s framework. Between 2013 and 2017 alone, more than 500 potential terror attacks were avoided and more than 2,000 terrorists were arrested thanks to the SCO-wide security cooperation. More recently, such cooperation has helped maintain a relatively secure environment in Central Asia in the wake of the chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021.
That being said, the China-Russia security cooperation under the SCO or bilateral mechanisms doesn’t represent a military alliance, and there seems to be little sign that their security ties are directed at any third country. By comparison, although NATO has a security-focused nature, the military alliance’s existence has not necessarily led to more regional security, if we think about the root cause of the ongoing war in Ukraine.
Over the past decade, certainty has probably been the most prominent feature in China-Russia relations. President Xi Jinping and President Vladimir Putin have met each other in person or virtually for dozens of times, and the two-way trade has more than doubled.
In stark contrast, the past decade saw the US move from “engagement” to “containment” in its China policy. Closely following the US step, Britain has shifted from touting a “golden era” to describing China as an “epoch challenge”. Such caprice, at least from China’s perspective, is the source of many uncertainties from which no one will benefit over the long term. In one example, Washington’s trade and tech war against China, which causes tremendous global supply chain disruptions, will certainly lead to a lose-lose situation.
It’s true that Beijing and Moscow sometimes join hands on the international stage. However, instead of trying to challenge the world order, they hope to jointly say no to the uncertainties born out of a mindset that find it difficult to accept a comparative decline of the West and the emergence of multipolarity.