Written by Vaidehi Meharia
Research Associate at Law & Order
St. Xaviers College, Kolkata
Disclaimer: Please note that the views expressed below represent the opinions of the article's author. The following does not necessarily represent the views of Law & Order.
The coronavirus pandemic has not only impacted the way we live our lives but has also significantly altered the dynamics of world politics rendering it completely different from what we witnessed in the pre-COVID-19 times. Amidst the lockdowns, stagnating economies and the shutdown of international trade, nations around the world have found themselves in urgent need of strengthening their respective positions in changing world order. Two such examples are Russia and China. The two countries have sought each other’s support in light of the novel challenges that the pandemic presents. They have also strategically shifted the focus of their diplomatic association amidst the changing nature of their respective relations with the global economic giant, the United States of America (Hillman, 2020).
In the past, both Russia and China have shared volatile economic and diplomatic ties with the United States. While the United States and Russia are looking at a future of improving association, the US-China dynamic in the past year has been severely deteriorating.
This combined with the pressures of effectively tackling the fallout of the pandemic has given impetus to not only the growth of diplomatic ties between Russia and China but has also significantly contributed to a strengthening economic alliance, which is at the centre of their strategic partnership (Hillman, 2020).
The Russia-China Dynamic in 2020
When the Chinese President, Xi Jinping visited Moscow in June 2019, he emphasised that “economic cooperation and trade is crucial to the development and revitalisation of Russia and China” (Hillman, 2020) with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. Bilateral trade between the two soared to a record USD 110 billion in 2019 (Standish, 2020). These numbers, however, fell during the first five months of 2020 owing to the global economic slowdown. Alongside, Moscow reacted quite radically in response to the growing number of COVID-19 cases in Russia during the early days of the global lockdown and quarantine. In retaliation to the rapidly spreading coronavirus, Russia suspended cross-border trade with China, postponed the coveted Russian Investment Forum in the Black Sea of Sochi and implemented a travel ban to and from China. Despite these early tensions, the two nations have begun collaborating on the Russian polymer plant in Amur earlier this month and have also announced scientific cooperation to test vaccines for the novel Coronavirus (Standish, 2020).
This development of economic, military and political ties between Russia and China is not just propelled by the need for stability in these difficult times but there is also a mutual need to reduce the two countries’ dependency on the US dollar in order to limit the dollar’s privileged role around the world (Standish, 2020).
Furthermore, there are several issues on which both nations differ with the United States heralding a need to find an ally in each other politically and economically.
Deteriorating US-China Relations
The past year has witnessed a significant shift in US-China diplomatic and economic relations. The two countries collided with each other on several political issues. For instance, the historic disagreement between the two countries on the issue of Taiwan has flared up once again. President Trump also spoke against Beijing’s ‘National Security Law,’ thereby threatening Hong Kong’s special status and the flourishing economic ties between Hong Kong and the United States, while simultaneously condemning Human Rights violations against the Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, China (Larin, 2020).
The economic association between the two countries has also taken a back seat since the increasing number of COVID-19 cases around the world. The Phase One of the China Trade Agreement signed in January is proving to be quite unrealistic (Chen, 2020) as the Chinese government does not seem to be in a position to meet the 2020 targets as per the terms of the First Phase of the US-China Trade Agreement. Moreover, the United States and China have engaged in bitter arguments, with the former repeatedly accusing the latter of the spread of the virus. In a world where the United States and most European countries have turned their backs on China, the latter has sought the support of Russia instead to emerge as a sufficiently influential bloc, politically and economically in a post-COVID world (Standish, 2020).
US-Russia Relations during the Trump Presidency
There has been a moderate improvement in the US-Russia dynamic since the time President Donald Trump took office in 2016. Although the President has attempted to ease the existing tensions with Russia, the latter’s growing relations with China has presented itself as a challenge for the United States. This is because it has proven to be a further setback in the United States’ attempts to undermine the two countries’ economic and social stability (Larin, 2020). Moreover, the disagreements concerning Russia’s activities in Ukraine, namely the Russian annexation of Crimea and the subsequent outbreak of war in Southeastern Ukraine have also added to existing tensions. This and Russia’s unsolicited cyber activities in the United States prompted the latter to impose sanctions against Russia. Although these rafts of sanctions affected the Russian economy negatively, Russia did not give in to the external pressures since it neither changed its position in Ukraine nor did it reduce its cyber interferences in the US (Stent, 2020).
However, things have begun to make a positive headway lately. Both Russia and the United States are set to work towards a five-year extension of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) which expires in February 2021.
START is a reiteration of the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks signed by the US President Ronald Raegan in 1972. If it is not extended, it will have serious implications by indicating a more costly arms race in the future (Stent, 2020). The Coronavirus pandemic has also offered ground for the United States to once again engage with Russia. An association which stems from vastly different opinions on the post-Cold War world order seems to be gradually strengthening through shared medical aid, an oil deal and a joint statement honouring their partnership during the Second World War (Wong, 2020).
Despite the varying natures of China and Russia’s relationship with the United States, the former two countries stand firm on one aspect of their respective foreign policies: their mutual discontentment with the American hegemony (Wong, 2020). Their opposition to the ‘western centred world order’ (Wong, 2020) forms the very basis of their strategic partnership. Moreover, the simultaneous developments in the Trade War between China and the United States and the imposition of sanctions on Russia by the US have pushed China and Russia further towards each other (Stent, 2020). Another factor which has fuelled this growing communication between the two countries are the efforts to reduce dependency on the US dollar through a process called ‘de-dollarization’ (Standish, 2020). Since the US dollar holds an important position in the global financial system, by limiting its overarching influence, China and Russia can protect their bottom line and resist the American dominance in major areas (Standish, 2020).
The new Russia-China dynamic that is emerging out of this pandemic is, to a certain extent, a win-win situation for both countries.
The pandemic and the subsequent oil crisis have deeply injured the Russian economy. It has replaced Saudi Arabia to become the largest supplier of oil to China and is also anticipating to benefit from the ongoing trade tussle between the United States and China. In other words, Russia is hoping that China (whose economy has suffered less due to the pandemic as opposed to the others) will become a pioneering force in the former’s economic recovery in a post-Coronavirus world. However, it is important to understand the Chinese position in this bilateral relationship as well.
It does not come as a surprise that presently, with how most of the major players in the world economy have positioned themselves against China, and Russia's interest in China, the former is a natural ally of the latter. Furthermore, as countries in the west look to shift away from globalisation, it appears that China will bear the biggest brunt (Frolovskiy, 2020). The Trade War and the interference in trade routes in the Gulf of Amen and the Strait of Malacca (Frolovskiy, 2020) will make China much more dependent on Russian supplies than it imagines. In the face of the pressures posed by setbacks in China’s signature Belt and Road Initiative and countries of the West pushing back against Chinese technology and policies, China is gradually moving to make Russia a steadfast ally in the future (Standish, 2020).
While it is too early to gauge whether Russia will change its foreign policy towards the United States in a post-COVID world, it is also true that there is little that the United States can do to jeopardise the dynamic which Russia and China share at present.
The Russia-China ties are built on the aforementioned systemic factors.
It can be safely assumed that with the looming possibility of new bipolar world order after the pandemic, Russia seems to be more inclined towards allying with its Chinese neighbour not just because its relations with the United States have deteriorated, but because it does have much to gain by maintaining and strengthening the relations it shares with the People’s Republic of China.
1. Chen, S. (2020). FIve Flashpoints to Watch as US-China Relations Worsen. Bloomberg. Retrieved from https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-05-21/five-flashpoints-to-watch-as-u-s-china-relations-worsen
2. Frolovskiy, D. (2020). Why China-Russia Economic Ties will Emerge from the Pandemic Stronger than Ever. South China Morning Post. Retrieved from https://www.scmp.com/comment/opinion/article/3098639/why-china-russia-economic-ties-will-emerge-coronavirus-pandemic
3. Hillman, J. E. (2020). China and Russia: Economic Unequals. JStor. Retrieved from https://login.library.britishcouncil.org.in:4443/login?qurl=https://www.jstor.org%2fstable%2fpdf%2fresrep25230.pdf%3fab_segments%3d0%25252Fbasic_search%25252Fcontrol
4. Larin, Victor. (2020). New Turbulence in US-China-Russia Geopolitical Triangle. The Global Times. Retrieved from https://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1200691.shtml
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6. Stent, A. (2020). Why are US-Russia Relations So Challenging? Brookings. Retrieved from https://www.brookings.edu/policy2020/votervital/why-are-us-russia-relations-so-challenging/
7. Tickle, Jonny. (2020). Bye Bye Benjamin! Russia & China Speed up De-dollarization Process. BRICS Information Portal. Retrieved from https://infobrics.org/post/31518/#:~:text=Russia%20%26%20China%20Speed%20up%20De%2Ddollarization%20Process,-By%20Jonny%20Tickle&text=After%20years%20of%20talking%20about,percent%20for%20the%20first%20time
8. Wong, (Frank). Ka-Ho. (2020). Should China Worry About the Russia-US Reset? The Diplomatist. Retrieved from https://thediplomat.com/2020/05/should-china-worry-about-the-russia-us-reset/