(Steppe Dispatches) The perceived “East-West” conflict revolving around Russia’s incursions into Ukraine has had the effect of pushing Moscow east. The two landmark Sino-Russian gas deals, each of which totaling hundreds of billions of dollars, made China Russia’s most significant trade partner, though only China’s tenth most significant partner, as of early 2015. How would you characterize the importance of strengthening relations with Russia to Beijing?
Laruelle: First off, the relationship is completely imbalanced, in terms of the importance that Russia gives it vs. the importance China gives it. For China, the deals aren’t tremendously important. It’s a victory for China’s Good Neighbor Policy as Beijing prioritizes constructive relations with Moscow and its Eurasian neighbors. In that sense, China is happy to have made deals with Russia, and has worked on this energy deal for years. Ultimately, however, the deals mean relatively little to China’s overall foreign policy; there are a number of more important issues for Beijing in Southeast Asia, and in its relationship with Japan, both North and South Korea, and the US.
With regards to Russia, the deal didn’t really come about as a result of the Ukrainian conflict. There are two different logics in play here: Russia has been advocating for an energy partnership with China for years. It is part of Russia’s long-term goal of reorienting its oil and gas distribution towards Asia in order to play East and West off each other. The ongoing East-West conflict is also pushing Russia towards Asia insofar as it relates to the Kremlin’s narrative of alternative powers, i.e. the BRICs and a Russia-China led world order in lieu of a Western world order. At the same time, however, In terms of self-perception, the East-West conflict has forced Moscow to realize that its relationship with Europe is vital for its security. In that sense, the West– not China or Asia in general–has been at the core of the debate in Russia surrounding sovereignty, strategic interests and state legitimacy. The East is just perceived as a means to bypass and challenge the West, whereas most core issues, those related to international prestige and geopolitical states, lie in Russia’s relationship with the West. […]
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