Issues thrown up by COVID-19 cement Sino-Russian ties


By P.K.Balachandran/Ceylon Today

Russo-Chinese relations, which have been good for many years, got a turbo-boost this year thanks to the way in which the US and its Western allies are looking at COVID-19, and spinning theories about the origin and spread of the virus which has crippled their economies in an unprecedented way.

With the US and its allies strongly advocating punishment for China for allegedly creating the virus and/or callously spreading it, Sino-US relations have gone into a tailspin. Given the fact that the US and its allies see Russia as a supporter of China in the on-going war of words, America’s relations with Russia have also gone down the chute. The net result is a palpable warming up of ties between Russia and China.

However, in the initial stages, the rapid advance of the COVID-19 across borders from the epicenter in China, strained Sino-Russian relations. There were reports of Chinese or Chinese-looking people being harassed in Russia. Writing in the Wilson Center website, Emily Couch, says that “in the early phase of the outbreak, the tendentious Russo-Chinese entente seemed to hit perilous waters.”

She quotes BBC Moscow correspondent Sarah Rainsford to say that the city authorities encouraged public transport drivers to report anyone who was Chinese-looking. Deputy Mayor Anastasia Rakova reported “daily raids” on the residences of Chinese citizens and the planned deportation of eighty-eight foreign nationals, the majority of whom were Chinese. In response to these measures, the Chinese embassy issued an official protest, calling on Russia to be “moderate and non-discriminative’ in its policy.”

Russia also closed its borders with China. According to Ka-Ho Wong, a Research Assistant on Russia-China relations at the Education University of Hong Kong, Russia’s exports to China shrank 30% in the first month and a half of 2020 due to COVID-19. Russia’s entry ban against Chinese citizens had hit the tourism industry hard. “According to the Association of Russian Tour Operators, the industry will lose US$ 38 million in two months and (US$ 403 million) if the ban is not lifted before this summer. Last year, Russia hosted 1.5 million Chinese tourists, the most from any single country,” K-Ho Wong says.

“The coronavirus outbreak in China will derail Putin’s National Projects program. The six-year program involves US$ 400 billion of investments to revive the Russian economy and legitimize the extension of Putin’s rule beyond 2024,” he adds.

However, looking at the larger global strategic picture, both Russia and China are playing down these problems. After an initial mild protest at the treatment meted out to the Chinese in Russia, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said that Russian measures are understandable and emphasized that Beijing appreciates Moscow’s support to China against the epidemic. Regarding Chinese nationals abused under Russia’s quarantine measures, Ka-ho Wong noted that the Chinese embassy dismissed the allegation as “rumors”. That is significantly different from China’s reactions to the United States and Japan, the researcher noted. On their part, Russian officials clarified that the entry ban is a temporary measure and that Moscow will keep issuing business and transit visas to Chinese citizens.

Emily Couch refers to an interview to Izvestia, in which the Chinese ambassador to Russia, Zhang Hanhui, said: “Russia’s assistance during the struggle of China against the COVID-19 epidemic was sincere, timely, firm and comprehensive. Rossiyskaya Gazeta and other leading media outlets have repeatedly published articles and reports expressing support for China in the fight against the epidemic.” The Chinese embassy also retracted its complaint over Moscow’s treatment of its nationals.

The main reason for the accommodative stance is that both Russia and China have a shared dissatisfaction with US hegemony and Washington’s pushy policy in their neighborhood.

“NATO’s and the EU’s eastward enlargement triggered Russia’s threat perception, leading to the Georgia War and Ukraine crisis. The Chinese government, meanwhile, blames Washington for Hong Kong’s protests and bitterly resents recurring arms deals with Taiwan. Russia and China also opposed the U.S.-led military campaigns against Serbia, Iraq, and Libya. Both Moscow and Beijing believe that the United States’ unilateralism poses significant threats to their sovereignty and interests,” the Hong Kong researcher points out. The US also keeps harping about human rights violence in Russia and China.

Feeling the need to come together, Moscow and Beijing got Gazprom and China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) to sign a 30-year, $400 billion gas deal. The Kremlin did not voice any fears about Xi Jinping’s flagship project the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) being extending to Central Asia, its traditional political backyard. K-Ho Wong says that there is now a division of labor in Central Asia under which Russia will be the main security provider while China will provide for economic development and regional integration.

Though Russia is clearly a junior partner in the informal alliance, China gives it equal status. The personal chemistry between Xi and Putin is utilized in full to strengthen political and economic ties. Bilateral trade between Russia and China is now estimated to be US$ 110 billion.

How does the US see all this? Emily Couch quotes the Director of the Wilson Center’s Kissinger Institute on China and the United States, Robert Daly, as saying that there is no alliance as such between China and Russia but accepts that “both resent American hegemony … so they find common cause, which includes things like joint military exercises both in the northern Pacific and most recently in the Indian Ocean.”

Bradley Jardine, the Wilson Center’s Schwarzman Fellow specializing in the Sino-Russian security nexus in Central Asia, adds: “Before the pandemic, Sino-Russian relations were growing increasingly close, with both sides seeking to reduce U.S. influence around the world. Last year, the two upgraded their strategic partnership, and trade between them reached record highs.”

But American observers see problems arising in people to people relations going by social media comments in Russia about the health hazards of getting close to the Chinese. There is a pervasive fear generated by the insidious coronavirus. At a more fundamental level, Western scholars also note that the Russians have always harbored a fear that they will be overrun by the Chinese who outnumber the Russians in population.

There is also difference between Russia and China in their perception of the desirable world order. The Russians are for a multi-polar world, where there will be a number of power centers with no power being the numero uno. But China, on the other hand, would prefer a bi-polar world, with China and the US sharing the spoils.

Such a difference in perception had shaped Russia’s and China’s relationship with India in the Cold War era. In the post-Stalin era, the USSR saw India as a counterpoise to the US and its allies which were building a ring of alliances aimed at containing the USSR. Moscow backed the Non-aligned Movement of which India was one of the founder-leaders. But Beijing always saw India as an upstart and a promoter of a socio-political system which could compete with China’s communism.

In addition, China had geo-political issues with India such as the border dispute and India’s giving asylum to the Tibetan rebel leader, the Dalai Lama. With the result, China adopted the policy of consistently supporting Pakistan vis-à-vis India on contentious issues like Kashmir, cross-border terrorism and membership of the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group. Russia, on the other hand, has been better disposed towards India’s concerns and ambitions.

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