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Russia?€™s Tilt Toward China

Russia is increasingly unable to resist the charm of China’s economic and political influence. As Russia’s relatively low productivity translates into declining competitiveness, China’s ways of influencing the north continue to expand.

Even routine domestic economic decisions in Russia are increasingly made with a consideration for China. For instance, Beijing sent a delegation to Moscow in July to negotiate conditions of a large group of ethnic Chinese affected by the Moscow government’s decision to close the large Cherkizovsky Market following multiple violations of labor and immigration law. Headed by Beijing’s deputy trade minister, the delegation negotiated restoration of the trading area on condition of a Chinese $1 billion investment.

But in recognition of the growing need for China’s investments and export markets, Russia was unwilling to press environmental claims against its neighbor when it polluted the Amur River.

China’s rising importance has translated into the growing prominence of the Sinophiles in Russia’s national discussions. Since the end of the Soviet Union, the China discourse has evolved from one dominated by the Westernizers to one largely controlled by the Sinophiles, who have supporters in the government, energy firms with ties to Asia and the military-industrial complex.

The general public has also grown more pro-China over time. For example, a June poll by VTsIOM revealed that the share of Russians viewing China as a strategic and economic partner had grown from 34 percent to 41 percent over the past several years. In addition, 47 percent of the respondents voiced optimism regarding the future of relations with China.

The Sinophiles are pushing to strengthen relations with China based on Russia’s economic and security priorities. Although they want to protect Russia’s sovereignty, they insist that it would be better protected by closer economic and political ties with China rather than with the West. This is driven by influential leaders in the Defense Ministry, Foreign Ministry and military-industrial complex who want to prevent the United States from dominating global affairs. Creating a multipolar world is necessary to revive Russia’s superpower status. Pushing for a U.S. retreat from Eurasia in the next five years, the advocates of multipolarity call for a political, economic and military union along the lines of a Warsaw Pact with China, India, Iran and other non-Western nations.

In the area of economic relations, the pro-China position is often favored by energy producers and military enterprises in search of high-ticket defense contracts in Asia. Kremlin strategists believe that the country would be better off redirecting its oil and gas supplies toward Eurasian countries such as China and India because such a measure would assist the country in developing energy-intensive goods and transforming its current status as a raw materials appendage of Europe.

As of now, Russia’s most commonly exported products to China are energy and weapons, whereas the most commonly imported products include everything from electronics to clothes. In addition, some state corporations have benefited from Chinese loans. For example, China’s $6 billion loan helped Rosneft purchase Yuganskneftegaz in a December 2004 auction. Notably, the chairman of Rosneft is Igor Sechin, who is a deputy prime minister and member of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s inner circle. As the key negotiator, Sechin is now applying the model of a recently signed oil deal with China to other energy areas including electricity, natural gas and atomic energy.

The prospect of a growing pro-China tilt in Russia’s foreign policy may force the West to alter its foreign policy course. Rather than trying to secure the 21st century as another American or Western century, Washington and Brussels will do well to prepare for the emergence of a post-Western world and reassess the role that Russia will play in this new structure.

Preventing a potentially anti-Western Moscow-Beijing axis means that the West has to strengthen its ties with Russia, while preserving strong relations with China. The objective should be not to marginalize or isolate China, but rather to strengthen Russia’s ability to choose its future partners in the post-Western world.

Andrei P. Tsygankov is a professor of international relations at San Francisco State University.

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