The Russian President, Vladimir Putin visited Beijing for the first time since his reelection in June 2012. Besides attending the SCO convention he also met President Hu Jintao, Wu Bangguo, the Premier, the Vice-Premier and the Vice-President during his trip. What does this meeting signify for Sino-Russian relations and the international security order?
China, Russia and the SCO
China and Russia are the only two members of the SCO that are also permanent members of the UN Security Council. Coupled with their economic and military prowess they are likely to remain the main decision-makers within the SCO in terms of agenda and approaches. Moreover, the fact that they share a long border and have many areas for joint cooperation makes them likely allies. The SCO is then simply another mechanism for China and Russia to work together.
Although Russia and China have always had a less than sturdy relationship, with the growing concern of a US-dominated security order, Russia and China can be seen to be moving closer, as reflected in the joint veto action against Syria. Since Putin’s election as President of Russia in 2000, bilateral relations between China-Russia have improved immeasurably.
Putin’s visit: An analysis
Putin landed in Beijing with a delegation of six cabinet members, top energy officials and the major group of actors in the business circles. A US $3.5 billion two way trade and infrastructure agreement was signed although the countries had hoped to sign deals in telecom, infrastructure, energy and trade worth US $5 billion. Even though energy was a high priority on their agenda the deal could not be signed due to pricing problems which was seen as a major roadblock in energy cooperation between the two nations. Nevertheless, after a closed door meeting Hu Jintao categorically stated that the further development of Russia-China relations is a ‘diplomatic priority’.
A key issue of concern during these meetings was the discussion of the Syrian issue; both these permanent members of the UN Security Council want to prevent the intervention of NATO as seen in Libya, and back Kofi Annan’s Special Envoy for brokering peace.
Besides this, the meetings did see some concrete results: the Russia-China Investment Fund was finalized as a MOU was signed between Kirill Dmetriyev (Chief of Russian Direct Investment Fund) and Lou Jiwei (Chief of China Investment Corporation) that outlined the establishment and the key principles of the joint investment fund.
In terms of infrastructure, there seems to be a tentative deal in the offing with China investing in Southern Russia to develop hotels and other facilities, as well as an aluminium plant and the joint manufacturing of airplanes and helicopters with the help of a Russian aircraft-maker. According to western analysts, Beijing may have confirmed agreements to receive high-end military technology that Moscow had withheld until now. By the end of the meetings a total of seventeen documents were signed between the two neighbours.
The Road ahead
Despite the above positive developments there are several roadblocks in the bilateral relation between these two countries; the chief impediment being energy cooperation and the question of pricing. Russia and China have not been able to reach a consensus regarding the price of gas and it looks like the problem might remain unsolved in the near future. Other problematic areas include immigration, the clash of commercial interests in developing countries and the Chinese trade structure.
Considering politically, Putin chose to visit China before the US after his re-election, this clearly points to the changing perceptions of the world security order, and how it may not be supportive of the same US led order as in the post-Cold War situation. It is a quid pro quo for both Beijing and Moscow: China requires Russian support on the growing US interference in the South China Sea, among other things, and Russia requires Chinese support against US interference in Syria. Both stand firmly against any US led intervention in Syria as well as any intrusions and sanctions against Iran over its suspected nuclear ambitions.
Russia clearly recognizes the growing importance of China, economically and otherwise. In an article in the Russian daily newspaper Moskovskiye Novosti, dated February 2012, Putin said China was not to be taken as a threat but a challenge that offers immense potential for business and China’s potential should be adequately utilized to develop Russia’s Far East and Siberia. He rebuffed any thoughts of aspirations by the Chinese of dominating the world order and said that in fact China and Russia share the idea of ‘an equitable world order.’
The statements by Putin coupled with the symbolic gesture of visiting China before US indicates the direction the Russia-China relations may take in the near future. Putin’s reelection signals a long period of stability in China-Russia relations and it seems like this status quo might be maintained till at least another six years. This stability will cast a lasting imprint on the future of energy security in for the world especially in Asia, which hosts some of the world’s largest energy producers and consumers.