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As China's trade dispute with the United States heats up and Russia faces sanctions from the West, Beijing and Moscow are growing closer. It's a budding friendship, despite some mutual distrust, says DW's Frank Sieren.
This can only be done among friends: Last Saturday, Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted a birthday party for his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, and presented him with a box of Russian ice cream. Xi apparently said that it was his favorite brand. He also praised their friendship.
The party took place in Tajikistan's capital, Dushanbe, on the margins of a conference about Central Asia.
Putin gave Xi his first box of ice cream in 2016 at the G20 summit in Hangzhou. "On every trip to Russia, I always buy Russian ice cream, and then when we get back home we eat it,” Xi said at the time.
The birthdays of top politicians are usually not talked about in China. The exceptional coverage of this occasion shows how important the relationship with Russia is to China.
Before going to Tajikistan, Xi traveled to Russia and described Putin as "his best friend and colleague.” He said that the relationship between their two countries had never been better.
Of course, it is more than just a personal friendship. It's a relationship shaped by geopolitics.
25 new contracts
Xi and Putin have met roughly 30 times over the past six years, as Russia faces sanctions from the West and China navigates a trade dispute with the US. At their most recent meeting, they signed 25 new agreements, including one between telecoms giants Huawei of China and MTS of Russia to develop a Russian 5G network. Moscow does not seem to be worried about working with Huawei for security reasons. Russia generally seems to take inspiration from China when it comes to internet control and censorship.
Trade between Russia and China exceeded $100 billion ($88 billion) last year and is expected to increase. In 2017, Russia surpassed Saudi Arabia as China's most important supplier of oil. Russian oil is also cheaper. The joke right now at the Chinese Foreign Ministry is that the tighter the Western sanctions become, the cheaper Russian gas is for China.
Russia tends to export raw materials to China — coal, oil, gas and wood — while Beijing supplies Russia with machines, consumer goods and (increasingly) fresh food, which used to come from the European Union. At this rate there might be little reason for Russia to return to Western goods if, one day, the sanctions are lifted.
Vetoing Western action
The two countries are trying to do business in yuan as much as possible, as part of an effort to weaken the US dollar. Both Beijing and Moscow feel that they have been mistreated by the West, and the US more specifically. Both are also skeptical of US hegemony — neither wants anyone else interfering in their internal affairs. Russia and China also have veto power on the UN Security Council, for example on resolutions over intervention in Syria or Venezuela. Putin and Xi have both made it clear that they will support Iran, regardless of increasing US pressure.
The Chinese and Russian armies (the second and third-largest in the world, respectively) have already conducted joint exercises. And don't forget, although Beijing is Washington's biggest creditor and its army is increasingly modern, Russia remains the only country whose nuclear arsenal is equal to that of the US.
The trust between Putin and Xi is so great and the geopolitics such that the traditional distrust between Russia and China seems to have been temporarily forgotten. China's New Silk Road initiative flows through places in Central Asia that have traditionally been more of Russia's domain, something Moscow isn't happy with. But Putin can't do much about it. Russia's weak economy can hardly keep up with Chinese investment in the region.
Putin wants to boost the Russian economy with major Chinese projects such as pipelines and high-speed rail lines. To expedite the process, he has some attractive offers, such as the joint development of Arctic sea routes, nicknamed the Polar Silk Road. Russia, which owns the most icebreakers in the world, is one of just five countries with territory in the resource-rich Arctic.
What about the EU?
One thing is certain: Russia needs China on the world stage more than China needs Russia, even if it was not Beijing but Moscow that decided to play a more decisive role in Syria. The economic relationship between Russia and China is imbalanced. Russia's share in China's foreign trade is currently only 1.9 percent, while China's share in Russia's foreign trade is 15 percent. Nonetheless, the two are growing closer. The EU will have to decide whether this is something it wants.
The sanctions have done more damage to the EU than to Russia and Putin has not been forced to step in line. In 2017, China replaced Germany as Russia's most important trading partner because of the sanctions. The West should be realistic: Sanctions only work if there is not a powerful player like China on the other side. The EU should think about whether it might be in its interests, with regard to Russia and the US, to work with China. It's been a while since Angela Merkel got ice cream from Vladimir Putin!
Frank Sieren has lived in China for over 20 years.