(The opinions expressed here are those of the author, a columnist for Reuters.)
By Peter Apps
LONDON, July 15 (Reuters) - When the foreign ministers of Russia and China met in March this year, they described their two countries as standing "back to back" in what many commentators painted as a growing alliance against the West. This weekend, Chinese State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Li used a rather different phrase to describe their partnership: "Not an alliance, but better than allies."
It was an unusual turn of phrase, particularly for an event to mark the 20th anniversary of the Russia-China Treaty of Neighbourliness and Friendly Cooperation. The keystone agreement between the two nations was extended last month in a joint meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping.
The two leaders have met virtually on multiple occasions since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, both unambiguously seeing an opportunity to use the crisis to deliver on their joint ambitions of undermining a western-led world and the United States in particular. Their relationship, however, is far more complicated than a simple partnership.
In regions such as Central Asia, Moscow and Beijing strike an uneasy balance as China's "One Belt, One Road" initiative quietly builds its influence in former Soviet republics that Russia still sees as its backyard. In other areas, the complex geopolitics of the 2020s defies simple efforts to divide the world into pro-and anti-western camps.
In the last two weeks, China has struck deals to deliver vaccines and infrastructure to Ukraine, a country with which Russia is effectively at war. Moscow, meanwhile, has done a deal with Beijing's strategic rival India to manufacture Russia's Sputnik V vaccine there.
These complicated relations, ironically, may in some ways serve all sides. For Moscow, having Ukraine move closer to China rather than simply just towards the West is in many ways a win, while Beijing has benefited from Russia's status as a partner of both India and China following their border spat.
Having felt sidelined and defeated for three decades following the end of the Cold War, Moscow clearly likes the idea of positioning itself once again as a "superpower" alongside China and the United States. Beijing, while clearly the more powerful partner, ultimately sometimes values having Russian support particularly when it feels isolated.
Such complexities, however, also bring strains. Last year, Moscow was able to position itself as a peacemaker between India and China after that border spat in the Himalayas – but New Delhi later withdrew from Russia's Zapad military drills to avoid finding its forces alongside Russian and Chinese troops.
That Moscow and Beijing believe that each can benefit – and learn from – the other remains clear. For both, their confrontation with the United States has become almost existential and they know that potentially acting together – or simply simultaneously – may offer the best hope of disrupting and defeating the global reach of U.S. military power.
In October, Putin for the first time mentioned explicitly the prospect of an outright military alliance between Moscow and Beijing, saying that it was "theoretically ... possible". Russian experts said that the likelihood of a formal deal remained remote, but the comments were designed to warn Washington against escalating tensions with both nations.
Financial ties have also grown, although cross-border trade remains relatively limited at $108 billion a year, well below a $200 billion target set by both countries for 2024. Last month, Moscow announced it had fully removed U.S. dollar assets from Russia's sovereign wealth fund to reduce the impact of U.S. sanctions, increasing investments in China.
COMPLICATED IN UKRAINE
Should war ever come – for example over Taiwan, or a more concerted Russian onslaught against Ukraine – the advantages of both Russia and China acting simultaneously are clear, at least when it comes to disrupting the United States. The peacetime reality, however, is more complex.
In Ukraine, China has quietly established itself as the largest foreign investor in the country even as Ukraine's confrontation with Russia worsens. On July 4, China and Ukraine signed a joint infrastructure deal committing Beijing to rebuilding ports, railways and other essential services across the country.
It is a relationship neither side talks much about, perhaps to avoid antagonising Moscow. Beijing has been a major provider of Chinese vaccines to Ukraine during the pandemic, even as Ukrainian authorities refused to allow Russian vaccines in. Ukraine is a significant supplier of jet engines to the Chinese military, which also buys from Russia.
With Russia mobilising tens of thousands of troops along its border earlier this year, Ukraine has been moving closer to the West in terms of military cooperation. But it is simultaneously also now signalling its closeness to China – several days before the deal, Ukraine pointedly withdrew from a multi-nation letter calling for Beijing to let international investigators probe alleged abuses against its Muslim Uighur minority.
What Moscow truly thinks of this development is hard to say – within Ukraine itself, pro-Russian media outlets have criticised Chinese vaccines, suggesting a desire to limit Beijing's influence. At the same time, however, Moscow would almost certainly rather see China grow its influence in Ukraine than see its neighbour move ever closer to the West.
Other areas where the two countries find themselves in similar overlapping competition include the Balkans, where Serbia was able to use its access to both Russian and Chinese vaccines to pull ahead of many other European countries earlier this year in vaccinating against COVID-19. Hungary has also walked an awkward path of striking deals with both Russia and China, using them for support amid complex relations with other EU states.
The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan may offer another avenue for Russian-Chinese cooperation and competition – both clearly see advantage from the resulting mess, but are also concerned about instability across their regions. They may not be truly friends, nor allies, but for now this unorthodox relationship appears to be working relatively well for both.
*** Peter Apps is a writer on international affairs, globalisation, conflict and other issues. He is the founder and executive director of the Project for Study of the 21st Century; PS21, a non-national, non-partisan, non-ideological think-tank. Paralysed by a war-zone car crash in 2006, he also blogs about his disability and other topics. He was previously a reporter for Reuters and continues to be paid by Thomson Reuters. Since 2016, he has been a member of the British Army Reserve and the UK Labour Party. (Editing by Giles Elgood)
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