It is the love triangle of global politics. Since the second world war, China, Russia and the United States have repeatedly swapped partners. The collapse of the Sino-Soviet pact after the death of Josef Stalin was followed by Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1972 and Mikhail Gorbachev’s detente with China 30 years ago. Today’s pairing, between Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, was cemented in 2014 after Russia annexed Crimea. In each case the country that was left on its own has always seemed to pay a price, by being stretched militarily and diplomatically.
This time is different. Though America is out in the cold, the price is falling chiefly on Russia. China dominates every aspect of the two countries’ partnership. Its economy is six times larger (at purchasing-power parity) and its power is growing, even as Russia’s fades. What seemed a brilliant way for Mr Putin to turn his back on the West and magnify Russia’s influence is looking like a trap that his country will find hard to escape. Far from being an equal partner, Russia is evolving into a Chinese tributary.
That may seem a harsh judgment. Russia is still a nuclear-weapons state with a permanent seat on the un Security Council. It has modernised its armed forces and, as in Syria, is not afraid to use them. This week Russian and Chinese warplanes conducted what appeared to be a joint air patrol for the first time, causing alarm when South Korea said a Russian plane had intruded into its airspace.
But the real news is how rapidly Russia is becoming dependent on its giant neighbour . China is a vital market for Russian raw materials: Rosneft, Russia’s national oil company, depends on Chinese financing and is increasingly diverting its oil to China. As Russia seeks to evade the hegemony of the dollar, the yuan is becoming a bigger part of its foreign-currency reserves (the share of dollars fell by half to 23% during 2018, while the yuan’s share grew from 3% to 14%). China supplies vital components for Russia’s advanced weapons systems. And China is the source of the networking and security gear that Mr Putin needs to control his people. Last month Russia struck a deal with Huawei, a Chinese telecoms firm distrusted by America, to develop 5g equipment—thus rooting Russia firmly in China’s half of the splinternet.
This suits China just fine. It wants a lasting friendship with Russia, if only to secure its northern border, the scene of clashes in 1969, and a source of worry in the 1990s when Russia looked as if it might drift into the West’s orbit. Russia also serves as an enthusiastic vanguard in China’s campaign to puncture Western ideas of universal human rights and democracy, which both countries see as an incitement to “colour revolutions”.
Mr Putin can point to several arguments for his partnership with China, in addition to their joint hostility to the liberal project. One is expediency. Western sanctions, imposed after his annexation of Crimea, the meddling in American elections in 2016 and the lethal use of a nerve agent in Britain two years later, have left Russia without many alternatives. Mr Xi has also given Russia cover for its military action in Syria and, to some extent, Crimea. And, in contrast to the end of the 17th century, when Peter the Great looked to Europe as the wellspring of progress, Mr Putin can plausibly argue that the future now belongs to China and its system of state capitalism.
However, Mr Putin is mistaken. For a start, the Russian version of state capitalism is a rent-seeking, productivity-sapping licence for the clique that surrounds him to steal freely from the national coffers—which is one reason why Chinese investment in Russia is rather limited. There is also a contradiction between Mr Putin’s claim to be restoring Russian greatness and the increasingly obvious reality of its subordinate role to China. This creates tension in Central Asia. Because stability in the region is important for China’s domestic security—it wants Central Asia to keep Islamic extremism at bay—the People’s Liberation Army is stationing troops in Tajikistan and staging exercises there, without consulting Russia.
And, at some level, the aims of Russia and China diverge. There is a limit to how much ordinary Russians will forgo Western freedoms . If the regime holds on to power by means of Chinese technology, it will feed popular anger towards China and its Russian clients.
Who can say when the strains will show? Imagine that Mr Putin chooses to step down in 2024, when the constitution says he must, and that his successor tries to mark the change by distancing Russia from China and turning towards Europe. Only then will it become clear how deep China’s influence runs and how much pressure it is prepared to exert to retain its sway. Russia’s next president may find that the country has lost its room for manoeuvre.
Does this mean that the rest of the world—especially the West—should seek to prise Russia from China’s embrace, before it is too late? That idea will tempt those diplomats and analysts who think Russia is too important to alienate. But it seems unlikely. America does not suffer from the Xi-Putin alignment today as it would have done in the cold war. Although Russia and China do indeed undermine the West’s notion of universal values, with President Donald Trump in the White House that doctrine is, alas, hardly being applied universally in any case.
What is more, China’s influence over Russia has compensations. An angry declining power like Russia is dangerous; it may feel tempted to lash out to show it is still a force to be reckoned with, by bullying Belarus, say, or by stoking the old fears of Chinese expansion into Siberia. But China has no appetite for international crises, unless they are of its own devising. As Russia’s partner, China can serve as a source of reassurance along their joint border, and temper Russia’s excesses around the world.
Rather than railing against Russia or trying to woo it back, the West should point out its subordination and wait. Sooner or later, a President Alexei Navalny or someone like him will look westwards once again. That is when Russia will most need Western help. And that is when the man or woman in the Oval Office should emulate Nixon—and go to Moscow.
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