Full partnership

The 2010 full partnership

The Sino-Russian relationship entered a new phase of “full partnership” driven by convergent perceptions of external threats and economic interests.

The 2008 Georgia War further strained the relationship between Russia and the West, especially with the United States. Although China’s relationship with the US stabilized in Bush’s second term and at the beginning of the Obama administration, it turned grumpy in 2009 when China’s assertive diplomacy was widely criticized and the US started its “pivot toward Asia”.

The 2008 Georgia war between Russia and Georgia was a “proxy war” between Russia and the West, although the West and especially the US did not send troops to the battlefield. The Georgia war was inspired by the “colour revolutions” in former Soviet republics such as Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan in 2003–2005. The pro-Western opposition politicians overthrew the pro-Russian incumbent leaders.

The US had established military bases in Central Asia and dispatched military advisors to Georgia. Georgia adopted a pro-Western policy and tried to bid for NATO membership at the end of 2008. The US and Russia conducted two parallel military exercises in the region, just two weeks before the outbreak of the Georgia war, where Russia invaded the separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia.

Soon after the conflict Russia claimed to recognize the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia. Although the United States strongly condemned the Russian invasion, it did not get directly involved. Instead, the United States led NATO to send humanitarian aid to Georgia. Soon after the Georgia war, Russia publicly claimed that it had privileged interests in certain regions, implying the CIS region. This statement can be seen as Russia’s “Monroe doctrine”, which aims to push the United States and European countries out of its sphere of influence. 

Since the Georgia war Russia’s relations with the West have deteriorated continuously. The Ukraine crisis, dating from 2013 and the later annexation (reunification, according to Russia) of Crimea by Russia in March 2014 was a result of Russia’s concerns over its sphere of influence against Western penetration. Western economic sanctions after the Ukraine crisis led to massive devaluation of the Russian currency and the later economic crisis. Russia’s relations with the West dropped to a post-Soviet nadir after the Ukraine crisis. China kept mostly a low profile over these disputes.

Since 2008, Beijing has shown strict assertiveness in its diplomacy towards the outside world. Economically, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao started to lecture the US about its economic mismanagement during the 2008 financial meltdown and refused to revalue the Chinese currency as the US requested.

Diplomatically, China responded furiously to Obama’s decisions of arms sales to Taiwan and a meeting with the Dalai Lama in early 2010 with a threat of sanctions on American companies. Politically, China reluctantly cooperated with Western countries, especially the United States, to punish North Korean or Iranian nuclear endeavors.

Starting in 2009, Obama initiated a series of foreign policies with a strategic focus on the Asia Pacific. It was later labeled the “US strategic pivot” or “rebalancing” toward Asia, aimed at strengthening US multi-dimensional engagement in the region.  For Chinese leaders, Obama’s pivot to Asia was clearly intended to contain the rise of China, despite the US government’s denial.

Sino-Russian relations developed dramatically when both perceived the United States as a greatest threatening common factor.

In September 2010 Russia and China signed a joint statement to upgrade their “strategic partnership” to “comprehensive strategic partnership” and Moscow confirmed that its bilateral relation with China was one of the priorities in Russia’s foreign policy. The addition of the adjective “comprehensive” indicated that the Sino-Russian partnership had moved to “full partnership” phase, in which they faced common security threats and had shared economic interests.

China has been Russia’s top trading partner since 2009, while Russia was China’s seventh biggest trading partner in 2014. In February 2009 China and Russia signed their largest-ever energy cooperation agreement in Beijing. According to the agreement China will loan $15 billion to Rosneft Oil Company and $10 billion to Pipeline Transport Company (Transneft), while Russia will export 300 million tons of crude oil from 2011 to 2030 and build an oil pipeline to China.

In 2014 the two countries signed another huge energy deal, a $400 billion natural gas agreement. Compared to the stagnant development of energy cooperation in the 1990s and even in the 2000s, these two deals represent a real breakthrough in economic cooperation between the two nations. Their economic relations are no longer the “weakest link” in bilateral relations, as some scholars described it in the 1990s and the 2000s.

In 2012 Putin made his first state visit to China after he assumed the presidential office. In 2013 Xi returned the honour with his first state visit to Russia. This “first-state-visit” practice indicated the significance of bilateral relations in both countries’ foreign policy agenda. During Xi’s visit China signed 20 agreements with Russia on wide-ranging issues like trade, economy, energy, investment, local cooperation, cultural exchange and environmental protection.

The two countries also expressed mutual support for each other’s core interests concerning sovereignty and territorial integrity. In practice, China and Russia conducted coordination and cooperation on many international issues. For example, they held a common stand on the Iran and Syria issues in the United Nations. Since 2007 (up to 2014) China and Russia have vetoed together six times in the United Nations and four times on the resolution related to the West-initiated draft resolutions against Syria.

President Putin’s 7 May 2012 Edicts

President Putin’s 7 May 2012 Edicts are an obligatory reference, when marking the inception of a new approach to the development and growth of Russian economy. Putin’s executive order, in 2012, on measures to implement foreign policy portended moving away from the West to the East.

The 2008–2009 worldwide finance and economic crisis was a cold shower for Russia. Not only the seven percent annual growth from 2000 to mid-2008 that was hoped to bring about the doubling of the economy in ten years was interrupted but subsequent developments proved that it could hardly be restored unless fundamental changes capable of upgrading and diversifying the economic structure intervened.

Russia’s economic interest in China increased substantially after the economic breakdown caused by the 2008 crisis and the successive collapse of commodity and energy prices.

From 2008 on, China was evolving to the first trade partner for Russia replacing Germany. Slow and uncertain recovery after the crisis increased the perception of economic fragility among policy makers.

The Russian major policy rethinking, forced by events, made Russia’s turn eastwards gaining steam. Russia’s focus fell on China as a privileged partner for trade and investment.

Two fundamental concerns are behind this turn in politics. Both were related to Russia’s large exposure to the West.

 In the first place,

  • policy-makers realized for the first time that Russia’s excessive dependence on her western economic partners, primarily on the EU, could seriously harm economic development, if positive trends abruptly reversed.
  • Russia had been exposed to other economic turmoil earlier, in particular the 1998 financial crisis but owing to her own policies and failures.
  • In 2008 it was a world-wide financial and economic crisis that hit Russia through falling foreign trade and via Russian big banks and companies’ large exposure to foreign loans facilitated by no control on capital movements (that China instead maintained).
  • Economic openness that was beneficial for growth from 1999 onwards suddenly turned into a nightmare exposing the fragility of the whole economic construct.

In the second place,

  • the leadership was made aware that, despite the country’s inclusion in the main international clubs (i.e. the UN Security Council, the G8 and the just accessed WTO), Russia continued to be an outsider, not a peer as looked for, but a distant guest at the table of world powers.
  • The perception was that Russia had no safeguards against the rebounds of unexpected actions worked out and launched against her interests.

The number of regional conflicts initiated or pursued disregarding Russia’s position and concerns increased from the late 1990s onwards. Fighting, carried out or assisted by NATO, moved from former Yugoslavia in 1999, to Iraq in 2003, Libya and Syria in 2011. All these events confirmed Russia’s views and skepticism against the West.

Mechanism of relation

The level of Sino-Russian relations has been continuously rising in the diplomatic strategies of each of the countries. The upgrades of partnership rate, enlarging areas of cooperation, increasing number of signed agreements and joint statements are clear practical evidences of these efforts.

China and Russia have established a mechanism for regular summits of heads of state, heads of government and leaders of parliament. China has nothing like this with another country and even globally this is a rarity. Economic cooperation has achieved breakthrough progress. Bilateral trade reached $87 billion in 2017 and was to hit $100 billion in 2018 and forecasted to $200 billion in 2024. The key elements of economic cooperation have been extensive energy deals (oil, gas, nuclear energy, ESPO pipeline and projects in Russian Far East region and in the arctic area).

The treaty of friendship in 2001, incorporated the main principles, spirit and results of bilateral experience over the previous ten years, to define in legal form the peaceful thinking of the two nations to have “friendship for generations” and to avoid “eternally being enemies.”

The social foundation for Sino-Russian cooperation has continuously expanded. From 2006 on, there has been a succession of years with large-scale, organized activities, such as years of youth friendship and tourism. In Chinese public opinion, Russia repeatedly stands in the ranks of friendly countries, while China’s image in Russia has continuously been improving.

In the international arena, there has been close Sino-Russian cooperation, indicated by numerous joint statements and joint positions in international organizations like the UN, G20, WTO and IMF advancing the main theme of multipolar world. China and Russia have worked together to establish regional and multilateral organizations, such as the SCO and BRICS.