The official Russian media channels describe China and Russia as the two greatest global powers, but in reality, Russia lags far behind China in most areas, especially economically. Despite China’s steadily growing share in Russian foreign trade and the EU’s decreasing share, Russia’s trade with the EU is still almost twice the size of its trade with China. Chinese investment in the Russian economy also remains far behind European investment. Russia’s growing exports rely on natural gas and oil, which Russia was forced to sell to China at below-market prices because of falling oil prices during the pandemic. To maintain relations with China, Russia must make a lot of concessions and compromises, both on the prices of natural resources and on clauses in cooperation agreements, which China, aware of its advantageous position, often seeks to change to its benefit. The crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has deepened this asymmetry.
In technology, China has overtaken Russia in many spheres but still depends on Russian military technology to some extent, especially in the production of aircraft engines. There is very close cooperation on developing artificial intelligence (AI). Several Chinese tech companies are active in the field of AI in Russia, Huawei having the most significant presence. Both China and Russia would like to reduce dependence on Western technologies and work together to achieve that. At the same time, cases of espionage in favour of China that came to light in Russia during the pandemic show that, despite the desire to give the impression of effective cooperation, there is a lack of trust between the two countries. Russia is aware of the threats posed by China, and by disclosing espionage cases, sends a signal to its alleged partner.
Cases of spying in favour of China that became public during the COVID-19 pandemic in Russia betray the distrust behind the facade of ever-growing cooperation.
In the field of military cooperation, China considers Russia’s combat experience highly useful, especially because it has very little itself. This lack of experience is why China is interested in joint military exercises with Russia. The joint exercises between the two countries also serve other objectives – to act as a deterrent to NATO countries and for China to intimidate countries with which it has territorial disputes or considers an integral part of China (Taiwan).
Despite the shared desire to give joint exercises names suggesting broad military cooperation, such as the Zapad/Interaction-2021 exercise in China in August 2021, joint Chinese-Russian activities in the field of security still fall short of coordinated cooperation. In fact, Zapad/Interaction-2021 only shares a symbolic link with the major exercise Zapad-2021 conducted in Russia and Belarus. By presenting themselves as a partnership, China and Russia seek to manipulate the international community and strengthen their image and position. Still, they also realise that forming a real alliance would require actions and concessions that neither is prepared to make.
Much tension occurs in international relations between China and Russia whenever China gains significant influence at the expense of Russia. For example, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) is becoming a platform where China and Russia engage in a power struggle under the pretence of good relations between member states. China has begun to assert itself much more forcefully in the SCO, upsetting Russia, which sees the SCO countries of Central Asia as its sphere of influence. China’s attempts to use vocabulary that imposes its foreign policy agenda on countries in the Russian sphere of influence worry Russia. This dynamic also confirms the imbalanced partnership between the two great powers as China ignores Russia’s wishes in its policy-making.
At the same time, Russia is trying to resist Chinese attempts to force it to endorse China’s policy statements and concepts on which the two have no common understanding or agreement. For example, joint statements are co-signed on the condition they also explicitly mention Russian strategic interests. China’s previously neutral and restrained foreign policy has become much more aggressive in the last few years, and Russian diplomats have experienced this first-hand. Occasionally, China has broken agreements with Russia, and Chinese diplomats have behaved disrespectfully towards their Russian counterparts.
China’s behaviour confirms that it is pursuing its objectives not only by pressuring Western countries that criticise it but also by forcefully, and sometimes cunningly, demanding explicit support for its policies from Russia – a country with which it has seemingly good and trusting relations. Russia, which wants to put pressure on the West by making the international community believe that its good relations with China could lead to a powerful economic and military alliance, hides all diplomatic differences from the public and tries to solve problems with patient negotiations behind the scenes. At the same time, the Russian leadership is concerned about the growing imbalance in relations with China and is doing all it can to defend its right to shape its foreign policy independently.
Appearances are very important for Russia. The Kremlin’s official media reports extensively on cooperation with China, spotlighting the positive aspects and skirting the differences. In the Russian media, China and Russia are often treated in the same context to give Russia more weight in the eyes of domestic audiences.