Following Xi’s lead? Russia takes closer look at Chinese ideology.

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Following Xi’s lead? Russia takes closer look at Chinese ideology.

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Is Russia’s future aligned with China? Many in Moscow think so, seeing the two countries’ visions aligning not just geopolitically, but also ideologically – though it may cost Russia considerably.

“Interest toward our eastern partner is really great and growing,” he says. “More and more people want to study Chinese, are interested in Chinese movies or literature, are keen to visit China as tourists, or start up a business with Chinese partners. … The more we know about our partners, the more objective and correct this knowledge will be, the better it is for the development of friendly and mutually beneficial relations.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Mr. Xi have met over 40 times in the past decade, and experts say that they tend to agree on most things, especially the joint urge to curb U.S. hegemony and establish a multipolar world order in its place.

“Both countries feel alienated by the outside world,” says Alexei Maslov, a China expert with Moscow State University. “Russia and China feel that the present world order is not fair toward them, and both want to play a greater role in global affairs. … Though they are very different historically and culturally, both countries are based on the same foundation of a strong state and personal leadership. Hence we see an affinity not just between Putin and Xi, but all the way down the chain of officials and business leaders.”

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A common vision for the future?

The evolving relationship between Moscow and Beijing has invited skepticism, in part because the record of Russia-China friendship is dismal.

There is a long history of animosity between the two countries, mutual suspicion continues to run deep, and previous attempts to establish an alliance have ended very badly. Critics point to continued competition between the two in areas like Africa and Central Asia, and the fact that relations with the West remain more important for both, especially China, than relations with one another.

Optimists point to the potential synergies between a vast but largely empty Russia, with a cornucopia of raw materials and immense tracts of unused agricultural land, and the teeming workshop of China next door, still in the throes of urbanization.

A survey conducted by the state-funded Public Opinion Foundation (FOM) earlier this year found that 77% of Russians regard China as a “friendly” power, and 78% think cooperation between the two countries will bring “more good than harm.” Another poll, carried out in March by the state-funded VTsIOM agency, found that 56% of Russians consider China a “strategic and economic partner” and that 53% think this is the right direction to go.

The last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, began the long process of rapprochement with China with a visit to Beijing in 1989 after decades of hostility between the two communist powers. But subsequent Russian leaders, primarily Mr. Putin, made substantive progress by resolving outstanding territorial disputes along their common 2,500 mile frontier, signing major trade deals, and forging what increasingly looks like a powerful new geopolitical compact.

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“Russia and China share a common vision on the future of international relations, which includes fair treatment for all, respect for all types of government and social structures, no hegemony, and no imposing of anyone’s political principles,” says Mr. Babaev. “This is an ideological alliance, which is much stronger than any military one.”

Potential, but not boundless

Russia’s turn toward Asia, and China in particular, has been greatly accelerated by souring relations with the West since the annexation of Crimea in 2014. The barrage of Western sanctions since Russia invaded Ukraine last year has made it a matter of urgent necessity for Moscow. China’s own disputes and tariff wars, especially with the U.S., have boosted the tendency for the two Asian giants to seek common ground and joint solutions.

At least on paper, the results are impressive. In the first half of this year alone, trade turnover increased by almost 40% with Russia redirecting to Asia energy exports that formerly went to Europe, and buying much more from China, including consumer goods such as household appliances, automobiles, and textiles.

The list of long-term joint ventures, largely an outgrowth of agreements at the highest level, looks substantial, including space, aviation, energy infrastructure, and nuclear engineering.

But, beneath the hype, some of those deals are reportedly troubled. A $50 billion venture to build a new passenger jet to compete in global markets has run into hot water over Chinese insistence on bringing in Western aviation companies according to media reports. Likewise the much discussed Power of Siberia II gas pipeline project, which Russia hopes would replace the now-defunct Nordstream pipelines to Europe, remains mired in red tape and a Chinese reluctance to commit.

“Even if China grants permission [for the new pipeline], it will take up to 15 years to put the necessary infrastructure into place,” says Mikhail Krutikhin, an independent energy consultant. “It’s not going to be possible for Russia to replace its former European gas markets for many years to come.”

Experts also point out that the impressive influx of Chinese consumer products into the Russian market, replacing the exodus of Western companies in the wake of the Ukraine war, comes at a price. For example, Chinese automobile sales in Russia have tripled, but it mostly involves finished products from China that take the market share of Western brands that were formerly assembled in Russia.

“Russian authorities used to insist on the localization of production, but now they are in no position to make the rules,” says Natalia Zubarevich, an expert with Moscow State University. “Russian industry has refocused on supplies from China, which is critical to survival. But it comes at the expense of diversified markets and supply chains, which is always better than dependence on one partner.”

One overriding question concerns China’s support for Russia’s war effort in Ukraine. A Chinese peace plan floated earlier this year seems to have fizzled. There are also conflicting reports about the firmness of Chinese backing and whether it is prepared to help Russia with lethal military aid.

That’s one of the questions that Mr. Babaev, of the China Institute, hears frequently.

“While China definitely wants peace in Europe as soon as possible, it will never allow Russia to lose,” he says. “Russia does not seem to need much help today, but in case Russia needs something tomorrow I am pretty sure China will help.”


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