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Article

The Grandeur and Miseries of Russia's "Turn to the East". Russian-Chinese "Strategic Partnership" in the Wake of the Ukrainian Crisis and Westren Sanctions

Russia in Global Affairs. 2018. Vol. 16. No. 3. P. 130-152.

After the start of political crisis in Ukraine, growth of Russian involvement in it and subsequent sharp deterioration of relations between Moscow and the West, there is much talk in Russia and abroad about Russia “turning to the East” and upgrading her relations with China to the level of “strategic alliance”. However, even the existing framework of ambiguous “strategic cooperation” would be problematic to sustain in the medium term, since the main structural prerequisites for Sino-Russian interaction almost in all fields are bad enough.

By the turn of 2012-2013 years, Sino-Russian bilateral trade reached its “structural ceiling”. For both countries to jump over these limits means to introduce deep systemic change in their respective economic strategies and policies, which seem now highly improbable. In addition, in January of 2015 came the collapse, logically derived from a general contraction of the Russian economy.

The mutual vision of both countries is in many ways incomplete or openly erroneous. The perception of the Chinese reform experience in Russia today has much more emotional than sober, derived from the traumatic defeat in the “Cold War”. This is indeed a kind of “surrealistic” “realistic” discourse, reaching up to fantastic expectations of China supporting Russia militarily or bailing out Russian state and corporate budgets simply because Moscow is defending her national interests in Ukraine against “Western encroachments”.

It is true that China may relish the prospect of fishing in troubled waters of the disagreements between Russia and the West. It may be also true that Beijing – in principle – has nothing against gaining as much economic, financial and even political preferences in Russia, as possible. However, all this has its price and limits. It was not in Beijing’s calculus to have a full-scale confrontation, to say nothing about the new edition of the “Cold War” between Moscow and the West. Chinese were also far from happy to see the first signs of Russian economy melting down in autumn 2014, reasonably fearing its eventual collapse. By late 2014, Beijing leaders became finally aware of the fact that they cannot fully comprehend the dynamics, direction and possible outcomes of Russian-Western relations, Ukrainian crisis and Moscow’s domestic policies. At the same time, China was far from eager to pay for the risks of Russian unpredictability on both foreign and domestic fronts. Moscow’s policy has moved beyond the limits of profitability that Beijing could have derived from the conflict between Russia and the West.

The combination of these factors in the medium-term perspective (from three to five years) may lead to what seems now quite an improbable situation with Russia-Western relations substantially stabilized and Sino-Russian interaction perceptibly cooling down. There will be no Russian-Chinese confrontation. What seems more plausible is a certain distancing from each other based on incomplete trust, the objective limits of interaction and some mutual fatigue.

After the start of political crisis in Ukraine, growth of Russian involvement in it and subsequent sharp deterioration of relations between Moscow and the West, there is much talk in Russia and abroad about Russia “turning to the East” and upgrading her relations with China to the level of “strategic alliance”. However, even the existing framework of ambiguous “strategic cooperation” would be problematic to sustain in the medium term, since the main structural prerequisites for Sino-Russian interaction almost in all fields are bad enough.

By the turn of 2012-2013 years, Sino-Russian bilateral trade reached its “structural ceiling”. For both countries to jump over these limits means to introduce deep systemic change in their respective economic strategies and policies, which seem now highly improbable. In addition, in January of 2015 came the collapse, logically derived from a general contraction of the Russian economy.

The mutual vision of both countries is in many ways incomplete or openly erroneous. The perception of the Chinese reform experience in Russia today has much more emotional than sober, derived from the traumatic defeat in the “Cold War”. This is indeed a kind of “surrealistic” “realistic” discourse, reaching up to fantastic expectations of China supporting Russia militarily or bailing out Russian state and corporate budgets simply because Moscow is defending her national interests in Ukraine against “Western encroachments”.

It is true that China may relish the prospect of fishing in troubled waters of the disagreements between Russia and the West. It may be also true that Beijing – in principle – has nothing against gaining as much economic, financial and even political preferences in Russia, as possible. However, all this has its price and limits. It was not in Beijing’s calculus to have a full-scale confrontation, to say nothing about the new edition of the “Cold War” between Moscow and the West. Chinese were also far from happy to see the first signs of Russian economy melting down in autumn 2014, reasonably fearing its eventual collapse. By late 2014, Beijing leaders became finally aware of the fact that they cannot fully comprehend the dynamics, direction and possible outcomes of Russian-Western relations, Ukrainian crisis and Moscow’s domestic policies. At the same time, China was far from eager to pay for the risks of Russian unpredictability on both foreign and domestic fronts. Moscow’s policy has moved beyond the limits of profitability that Beijing could have derived from the conflict between Russia and the West.

The combination of these factors in the medium-term perspective (from three to five years) may lead to what seems now quite an improbable situation with Russia-Western relations substantially stabilized and Sino-Russian interaction perceptibly cooling down. There will be no Russian-Chinese confrontation. What seems more plausible is a certain distancing from each other based on incomplete trust, the objective limits of interaction and some mutual fatigue.