MOSCOW: Nearly three decades after the end of the Cold War, two former comrades have returned to being allies — in a different sort of war.
Russia and China have closed ranks and strengthened relations with what they call a “strategic partnership”, amid escalating tensions between Beijing and Washington over unresolved trade disputes.
There are joint military exercises, mega projects and a lot more that two of the largest world powers are working on as they present a united front against American protectionism.
For example, in exchange for Russia’s resources, China has provided its neighbour with advanced technology, including the tools to develop a 5G network.
As the governments of both countries look to ramp up such initiatives, however, the world is confronting the reality that China views Russia as much more than a trading partner.
From thwarting the United States’ attempts to weaken their economies, to joining forces to dominate the Arctic, Sino-Russian cooperation is extensive enough to raise concerns in the West.
The CNA series The New Silk Road examines the nature of this geopolitical alliance, its impact on the rest of the world and what the Belt and Road Initiative means for Russia. (Watch this episode here.)
PANDAS AND TOURISTS
Two of Beijing’s latest contributions to Russia has its president Vladimir Putin even pronouncing that they are able to make him smile.
Ru Yi and Ding Ding, the two giant pandas that made their debut at Moscow Zoo five months ago, arrived on a 15-year loan — one that involves the zoo paying China about US$1 million (S$1.36 million) annually.
That does not include the millions needed to maintain their enclosures and to import bamboo. Whether or not the investment breaks even, however, the pandas will not be treated as “cash cows”, promises Moscow Zoo director Svetlana Akulova.
“This isn’t a financial project,” she says. “This is about scientific research and cooperation between Chinese and Russians in this field.”
China’s reserves the animals for countries it deems friendly — about 20 nations this year, including Singapore — and sends them to sweeten relations.
But this panda diplomacy has stirred up controversy in Denmark, where the arrival of another pair in April sparked some public concern over the Danish government’s position on China, especially on issues like human rights.
More recently in Germany, the first panda cubs born there have also triggered debate about the country’s position on the Hong Kong protests. In Russia, the pandas do not carry such baggage.
“Most Russians don’t read much into the pandas’ arrival,” says Professor Sergey Lukonin, the director of Chinese Political and Economic Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences. “To them, ‘China has provided us with pandas, thank you very much.’”
The Russian reception to the pandas speaks much about the two countries’ good ties in recent times. And it is not just the pandas that have arrived.
There is a trend towards Chinese visitors doing a specialised kind of sightseeing: Red Tours that explore the communist history and ideologies shared between Russia and China.
For example, one of the tour sites, on the outskirts of Moscow, is a museum dedicated to the Sixth Congress of the Communist Party of China, which was held in the very same building in 1928.
“Many Chinese tourists learned about the shared history between our two countries from their elders or textbooks. It has aroused their interest,” says the memorial’s deputy director Ma Xian Jun.
“Today, China and Russia are on good terms, and accessibility to Russia has improved. Many Chinese want to visit the places they read about when they were young. The journey is very enjoyable to them.”
CARS AND COMMERCE
Good relations are also good for business, investments and jobs.
In the city of Tula, which the local government is looking to turn into a manufacturing hub, the plentiful labour and land attracted Great Wall Motors — China’s largest producer of sport utility vehicles — to set up a car factory.
At a cost of US$500 million, it is the biggest Chinese investment in Russia’s manufacturing industry, and is China’s first overseas car plant where the vehicles are assembled from scratch.
It opened in June with some of China’s latest manufacturing technology such as high-tech assembly robots, and is expected to generate about US$2.6 billion in total output value.
“The local government offered us good incentives to set up our operations here. They were too good to refuse. We’re grateful to them,” says the factory’s deputy director Ivan Dushkin.
“We were given tax and customs reliefs. We received assistance in hiring personnel and the necessary support to help us develop our business and produce high-quality products.”
Jobs have been created for more than 1,000 workers already, 90 per cent of whom are from the Tula region in western Russia. And by next year, production capacity will be upped from 80,000 cars a year to 150,000 cars.
Despite the high levels of automation, assembly engineer Ivan Martynenko is confident that skilled workers like himself will continue to be in demand — and to benefit from the “valuable experience”.
“(Working here) has provided me with … a new perspective. It’s beneficial to learn from Chinese manufacturing professionals, especially since this company is a leader in this industry,” he says.
In the country’s second-largest city, Saint Petersburg, the Russia-China Business Park is helping other Chinese companies expand to Russia and vice versa.
It is also promoting the Belt and Road Initiative to Russian and other Russian-speaking countries. And a permanent exhibition dedicated to the initiative has become somewhat the centerpiece of the park.
Unlike other industrial parks along China’s New Silk Road, there are mostly exhibition halls instead of offices and factories on this 10-hectare site. At its core, there is a focus on promoting cross-cultural understanding.
For example, Russian visitors can immerse themselves in different Chinese art forms, such as calligraphy, music, martial arts and even tea appreciation. Meanwhile, the Chinese working in the city can learn Russian in a fun way — through Russian opera.
“Our relations with Russia have improved not only because of trade, but also because of cultural exchanges. We use culture to bridge companies from both countries, and provide them with comprehensive (commercial) services,” says the park’s president Chen Zhi Gang.
“Every year, we receive 200 to 250 businesses from China … Many joint business projects between the two countries have come to fruition because of our work.”
FROM MEAT TO 5G
While the efforts of the Russia-China Business Park have been driven almost entirely by the private sector, both governments have now committed to a new era of Sino-Russian cooperation, amid the trade war led by US President Donald Trump.
“In Russia’s opinion, America has broken the rules of international trade and is guilty of using economic and political tools to promote its own interests,” says Dr Lukonin. “In view of this, Russia supports China to protest against American policy.”
That support has gone beyond just rhetoric. After Sino-US trade talks fell through, and China had to look for alternative sources of meat in recent months, Russia was quick to fill the gap.
For example, the Cherkizovo Group, the country’s biggest meat producer, started exporting its products to China in May and has been tasked to help meet Russia’s target of supplying its ally with 48,000 tonnes of meat by next year.
The company, which ships more than 3,000 tonnes of poultry to China every month now, is seeking to capitalise on both the trade war and the recent swine fever outbreak that affected China’s meat supply.
“We have a lot of products here, which are in high demand in China. And we hope very much that we’ll have an opportunity to export pork to China as well,” says Cherkizovo Group chief analyst Andrey Dalnov.
“We’re talking about pork feet, pork ears, stomach, et cetera, which aren’t in high demand here in Russia. So once we have a base of consumers in China, I think that we’re going to continue exporting, swine fever or not.”
That is not the only way both countries are collaborating to get though the trade war. When the US closed the door on Huawei over allegations of espionage, Russia welcomed the company to develop a 5G network in the country.
“China is merely presenting its own alternative to American equipment,” says Dr Lukonin. “Huawei cooperating with (Russia’s leading telecom company) MTS shows that such cooperation is economically beneficial for Russian companies.”
Even if the US softens its approach to China eventually, he doubts that would weaken Sino-Russian relations. “China will continue its cooperation with Russia because we’re strategic partners. I don’t expect any changes,” he says.
ARCTIC AMBITIONS, MILITARY MIGHT
The reality is that Russia’s location makes it a bridge China needs to connect both the Arctic and Eurasia with the broader New Silk Road.
Shipping and energy companies from both sides are collaborating in the extraction and export of liquefied natural gas from Russia’s Arctic region.
WATCH: 8 signs China & Russia are becoming BFFs (5:24)
Most of this LNG comes from the Yamal Peninsula, which holds over a fifth of the country’s natural gas reserves.
Through several state-run enterprises, China owns nearly 30 per cent of an LNG plant there that may be capable of producing 70 million tonnes of natural gas a year by 2030.
It is one of several projects Beijing has embarked on in the Arctic. These range from expeditions to research centres to ice breakers, as part of its strategy to develop a Polar Silk Road and dominate the Northern Sea Route.
That maritime corridor along Russia’s Arctic coast has recently become more accessible owing to climate change, and Moscow has encouraged China’s ambitions.
“Russia found that these plans complemented its own plans to organise navigation and transport of goods along the Northern Sea Route,” explains Dr Lukonin.
The main issue here is … Russia isn’t financially capable of doing it alone. Russia is therefore very interested in securing Chinese investments to develop the Northern Sea Route.
The two countries are also joining forces on the battlefield. They hold combined military exercises regularly, the biggest of which was last year’s Vostok war games held in the eastern reaches of Siberia.
With about 300,000 troops as well as thousands of aircraft and military vehicles, it was the biggest military drill since the Cold War. In recent years, Moscow has also equipped Beijing with some of its most advanced weaponry.
And when Russia marked its Naval Day in July, a Chinese missile destroyer was one of the few foreign ships to participate in the celebrations in St Petersburg.
These developments underscore a geopolitical shift. The two countries, which used to regard each other as military rivals, are extending their cooperation beyond economics to defence.
Concerns have emerged in the West over the alliance and the potential for the two giants to form a geopolitical bloc by integrating the Eurasian Economic Union — comprising Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan — with the Belt and Road Initiative.
China will need to consider how it can keep a balance between its different partnerships, including with Europe, advises Dr Cui Hongjian, who heads the European Studies Department at the China Institute of International Studies.
“One potential way of thinking about China-Russia relations is, perhaps, these two countries will be in a bloc. Maybe some other countries, for example the United States and Europe, will be in another bloc, which means … some more confrontation,” he says.
“Once this kind of thinking (is allowed) to shape the international order in future, I think that would be a tragedy … We don't want to go back to the so-called Cold War period. So we need to try every kind of effort to stop this kind of trend.”
Both countries say they are committed to a multilateral approach and are not pursuing a geopolitical bloc. Meanwhile, their two leaders have committed to implement the Belt and Road Initiative.
Presidents Xi Jinping and Putin have met nearly 30 times in the past six years. And their close friendship is regarded as the pillar of the strategic partnership.
In June, during Mr Xi’s eighth state visit to Russia, his counterpart was happy to show him around St Petersburg — which is Mr Putin’s hometown.
They shared a private cruise down one of the city’s rivers and also visited the Russian leader’s alma mater, St Petersburg State University, where Mr Xi received an honorary doctorate.
But it remains to be seen if this personality-based diplomacy will be a durable basis for long-term relations between two countries with no unifying cultural links other than their communist history.
Cultural counsellor Gong Jia Jia at the Chinese Embassy in Russia thinks “no other countries can come close” to their bilateral ties.
“(Our leaders) play a very important role, but our two countries do hope to remain good partners,” she says.
It’s the only way we can all enjoy the fruits of prosperity and development. I feel that the citizens of both countries do wish for this.
While the Chinese continue to use the past to reinforce ties with their neighbour, they are also looking towards the future, as series host Anthony Morse finds out.
“The engagement between Russia and China is a little different from other collaborations I’ve observed along the New Silk Road. It goes beyond soft power, hard infrastructure and investment,” he says.
“The strategic partnership between the two countries represents a long-standing commitment to be allies in a contested world.”
Watch the fifth season of The New Silk Road here.