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Russia’s Ambitious Plan for Africa

Kester Kenn Klomegah

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Russia and African states have traditionally enjoyed friendly, time-tested relations, and a significant role was in the liberation of the continent, supporting the struggle of its peoples against colonialism, racism and apartheid.

Today, the development and strengthening of mutually beneficial ties with African countries and their integration associations is one of Russia’s foreign policy priorities, thus on October 23-24, Sochi hosted the first Russia-Africa Summit.

The idea to organise such an event emerged quite a long time ago; however, it has taken some time and considerable preparatory work to make this summit a starting point for building fair partnership relations based on equality and mutual practical interest.

Putin has outlined a comprehensive plan and taken note of key factors that includes:

* Russia, together with the international community, renders comprehensive assistance to Africa, inter alia, by way of reducing the debt burden of its states. With a number of countries, Russia is carrying out debt-for-development swap programmes.

* As for the potential level of investment in Africa in the next five years, the figure expected to be quite high, with a number of billion-dollar investment projects with Russia’s participation. Both Russia and Russian companies have substantial resources. African partners, in turn, will have create the necessary stable and predictable business environment and investment protection mechanisms and ensure favourable investment climate.

* Africa’s infrastructure needs are increasing, and African population is rapidly growing, as are its demands. All of this, in turn, calls for an expanded domestic market and greater consumption. Of course, where there are promising prospects for investment and profit, there is always competition, which, unfortunately, at times goes beyond the bounds of decency.

* Russia has certainly take note of these factors and draw conclusions. Russia is not going to participate in a new “repartition” of the continent’s wealth; rather, ready to engage in competition for cooperation with Africa, provided this competition is civilized and develops in compliance with the law. Russia has a lot to offer to its African friends.

Under the headline “Russia-Africa Summit: Future-Oriented Agenda” for the Valdai Discussion Club, Deputy Director and Chief Researcher at the Institute for African Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Professor Vladimir Shubin, noted that one should not be surprised that the first summit bringing together Russia and the leaders of African countries should take place after almost three decades, due to multiple factors during the period after Soviet collapse.

Further, he mentioned that one serious obstacle to the development of comprehensive ties is the lack of objective information about Russia in Africa, and about Africa in Russia. The potential of bilateral relations can be realised only if both sides shed the stereotypes imposed from outside and develop mutually beneficial cooperation, grounded in reality. 

Shubin added, regrettably that “the state of bilateral economic relations leaves much to be desired.” But, Moscow seeks to create favourable conditions by writing off the debt of African countries (US$20 billion), as well as introducing a system of preferences for traditional African export goods.

However, trade turnover remains limited, at less than 3% of Russia’s total foreign trade. According to the African Development Bank, Russian investment in Africa peaked at US$20 billion, although its flow is hardly stable. Unfortunately, in these areas Western sanctions have become an obstacle in recent years.

Russia’s presence in Africa has remained marginal, but this could soon change. Several delegations from African states have visited Moscow during the past few years and the Russian government appears determined to strengthen ties with Africa.

But, Russia’s intensified move to invite delegations has often been interpreted among academics and policy experts as a result of escalating competition and increasing economic influence by many foreign players in Africa.

Professor Georgy Toloraya, Chair of the Regional Projects Department, Russkiy Mir Foundation, and Executive Director, BRICS National Research Committee in Russia, explained that in the wake of increasing conflict with the West and European Union, Russia has to turn its attention (especially in economy) elsewhere and Africa is the obvious choice. The time has come to make meaningful efforts to implement agreements on bilateral basis.

Some experts acknowledge that it is never too late for Russia to enter the business game but what it requires here is to move beyond old stereotypes, prioritise corporate projects and have a new policy strategy for the continent – a market of some 350 million middle-class Africans.

Russia has to risk by investing and recognise the importance of cooperation on key potential investment issues, work closely with African leaders on the challenges and opportunities on the continent, Andy Kwawukume, an independent policy expert told me in an emailed discussion from London, noting that Russians have been trying to restage a comeback over the past few years, which was a commendable step forward.

Kwawukume, a Norwagian trained graduate, pointed out that “there is enough room and gaps in Africa for Russians to fill too, in a meaningful way, that can benefit all parties involved. The poor and low level of infrastructural development in Africa constitutes a huge business for Russian construction companies to step in. Energy is another sector Russians can help in developing. Russian officials should consider using its Russian trained African graduates as bridges to stimulate business cooperation.”

But, John Mashaka, a Tanzanian financial analyst at Wells Fargo Capital Markets in the U.S., argues that Russia is going to remain relevant in Africa if its leaders can design a policy or mechanism that will enable its people and corporations to secure credits – loans – with favourable terms including payment.

It must counter China’s increasing economic influence with much better packages such as concessional and low-interest loans. There are chances to turn the business tide and if Russians can come with a different mix of economic incentives, without doubt, they will be taking off from the track where the former USSR left after the collapse of the Soviet era.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov reiterated that it was to develop a trustworthy political dialogue and strengthen mutually beneficial bilateral cooperation in accordance with the declaration on strategic partnership and to forge cooperation in mutually beneficial economic spheres.

Lavrov further stressed the situation in different African regions, including to the north of the Sahara, in the region of the Horn of Africa, including the situation in Somalia, in the Republics of Sudan and South Sudan, the Central African Republic, in the Great Lakes Region, which is the key focus of attention in the foreign policy.

“We would like to contribute to the normalisation of all multifaceted ties, as well as the settlement of other problem issues in the African continent,” said Foreign Minister Lavrov. As far back as May 2014, while addressing African diplomatic representatives, Lavrov said: “We will continue to assist states of the continent in other areas both in bilateral and multilateral formats. As it is known, Russia has written off over US$20 billion debt of African states. We are undertaking steps to further ease the debt burden of Africans, including through conclusion of agreements based on the scheme debt in exchange for development.”

In an article headlined: “Russia and Sub-Saharan Africa: Time-proven Relations” published in the magazine Russian View in May, Sergey Lavrov gave additional information on gains made in policy implementation in Africa.

“Our country takes significant practical steps to assist sustainable development of African states. Russia provides African countries with extensive preferences in trade and contributes to alleviating their debt burden – the total amount of debt relief exceeds US$20 billion. Debt-for-development agreements for a total amount of US$552 million were concluded with certain States,’ Lavrov wrote in the article.

Obviously, Russia continues providing the necessary politico-diplomatic follow-up for the African activities of leading Russian companies such as Alrosa, Gazprom, Lukoil, Rusal, Renova, Gammakhim, Technopromexport, VEB and VTB banks, which are engaged in large-scale investment projects on the continent. Positive dynamics are evident in the development of Russian-African cooperation in the minerals and raw materials, infrastructure, energy and many other spheres.

Some experts have offered both criticism and expert advice, often comparing Russia’s economic investment and influence to other foreign players. As Dane Erickson, a lecturer at the Graduate School of Public Affairs at the University of Colorado and formerly a visiting scholar at the Africa Studies Center at Beijing University, argues that the reality is that China is among many international players that have increased their attention to Africa in recent years.

Largely due to Africa’s growing reputation as a region for commerce, over the past few years China, India, Japan, and the European Union all have hosted regional meetings similar to the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit. Africa’s fractional share in global foreign direct investment (FDI) is on the rise, and trade between Africa and a multitude of nations is also increasing rapidly, according to Erickson.

China’s trade has increased rapidly. For example, China is the most conspicuous among these actors. China’s first Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) occurred in 2000 and larger conferences have taken place every three years since. And while China’s official FDI is only 25 percent of that of countries like the U.S. and France, its trade dwarfs the figures of other nations. Up from just US$10 billion in 2000, Chinese-African trade came to over US$200 billion double that of the United States, the continent’s second largest trading partner.

Professor Gerrit Olivier at the Department of Political Sciences, University of Pretoria, and former South African Ambassador to the Russian Federation, wrote that “what seems to irk the Russians, in particular, is that very few initiatives go beyond the symbolism, pomp and circumstance of high level opening moves.

Professor Olivier added that Russian presence in Africa could be directed at promoting economic development and political stability in Africa by introducing more healthy competition, partnership, and greater responsibility on the continent.

Important though is the fact that the Soviet Union never tried to colonize Africa. Soviet influence in Africa disappeared almost like a mirage with the collapse of the Soviet system in 1991. In the current assessment of Russia’s influence in Africa, despite efforts towards resuscitation, has remained marginal. While, given its global status, it ought to be active in Africa as Western Europe, the European Union, America and China are, it is all but absent, playing a negligible role, according to the views of the retired diplomat.

Russia, of course, is not satisfied with this state of affairs. At present “paper diplomacy” dominates its approach, a plethora of agreements being entered into with various African countries, official visits from Moscow proliferate apace, but the outcomes has remained hardly discernible. Be that as it may, the Kremlin has revived its interest in the African continent and it will be realistic to expect that the spade work it is putting in now will at some stage show more tangible results, Professor Olivier wrote from Pretoria in South Africa.

Foreign Affairs Minister Sergey Lavrov has said that trade between Russia and Africa would grow further as more and more African partners continued to show interest in having Russians in the economic sectors in Africa.

“Our African partners are interested in Russian business working more actively there. This provides greater competition between the companies from Western countries, China, and Russia. With competition for developing mineral resources in Africa, it is easier and cheaper for our African colleagues to choose partners,” he told the staff and students at Moscow State Institute of International Affairs early September.

Soviet Union and Africa had very close and, in many respects, allied relations with most of the African countries during the decolonisation of Africa. For obvious reasons, the Soviet Union ceased to exist in 1991. As a result, Russia has to struggle through many internal and external difficulties. The past few years, it is still struggling to survive both the United States and European sanctions.

For decades, Russia has been looking for effective ways to promote multifaceted ties and new strategies for cooperation in economic areas in Africa. A number of foreign countries notably China, the United States, European Union, India, France, Turkey, Japan, and South Korea have held gatherings of this kind in that format. Now, Kremlin has held the first Russia-Africa Summit with high hopes of enhancing multifaceted ties, reshape the existing relationships and significantly roll out ways to increase effectiveness of cooperation between Russia and Africa.

MD Africa Editor Kester Kenn Klomegah is an independent researcher and writer on African affairs in the EurAsian region and former Soviet republics. He wrote previously for African Press Agency, African Executive and Inter Press Service. Earlier, he had worked for The Moscow Times, a reputable English newspaper. Klomegah taught part-time at the Moscow Institute of Modern Journalism. He studied international journalism and mass communication, and later spent a year at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations. He co-authored a book “AIDS/HIV and Men: Taking Risk or Taking Responsibility” published by the London-based Panos Institute. In 2004 and again in 2009, he won the Golden Word Prize for a series of analytical articles on Russia's economic cooperation with African countries.

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Eight Principles of the “Greater Eurasian Partnership”

Dr. Andrey KORTUNOV

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Image source: kremlin.ru

It is common knowledge that Eurasia is the largest continent on Earth, spanning over one-third of the planet’s total area. It is also the most populous, with over two-thirds of the global population calling the continent home. Eurasia has tremendous natural resources, from oil and gas to freshwater and fertile lands. The peoples of Eurasia can be rightfully proud of the fact that it was here that the oldest human civilizations first appeared, that they have managed to settle in both scorching deserts and freezing tundra, built huge cities and wonderful architectural monuments, laid extensive networks of railways and motorways, and made an invaluable contribution to human culture in all its aspects.

It would only be natural for the sprawling spaces of Eurasia to become united in a single system, where different geographic components would organically complement each other. It would be natural for customs tariffs and visa restrictions dividing our countries to become a thing of the past, for mutual suspicions, long-standing grievances and endless disputes to give way to mutual understanding, a multilateral balance of interests, and an awareness of our common historical destiny. Such a union would primarily benefit the peoples of the Eurasian continent, who would be able to expand their horizons, shed their old fears and biases, and gain radically new opportunities for economic, social and spiritual prosperity. Eurasian unification would also benefit the rest of the world, which would be the beneficiary of a powerful development engine ready to pull other continents along with it and make a decisive contribution to resolving the global problems facing humanity.

Sadly, the Eurasian continent continues to be disjointed or, rather, split into a host of large and small fragments. This applies to Eurasian security, the Eurasian political space, the Eurasian economy, and science and culture. Right now, the concept of “Eurasian identity” does not even exist, and the numerous attempts to construct one have not brought anything particularly promising.

The current lack of unity in Eurasia can be put down to a number of factors – the continent’s trying history, the tragic mistakes of national leaders, the nefarious activities of external forces, and so on. However, whatever the reasons for the current circumstances might be, it is crystal clear that radically changing the situation will take both strong political will and a generous helping of perseverance, patience and flexibility, as well as a readiness to deal with unexpected failures, irritating reversals of fortune and temporary setbacks. What is more, Eurasia will never be unified if it is something the continent’s inhabitants do not seek. And right now, it is something that only the leaders of certain Eurasian states want. Success here also depends on selecting the right sequence of practical steps that would lead to a single Eurasian space.

The “Greater Eurasian Partnership Concept” first introduced by President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin in late 2015 proceeds from the premise that the first steps in this direction should be taken in the economic architecture of the Eurasian continent, rather than in the political or military spheres. The economy forms the base of modern society, even though politics frequently gain the upper hand over economics in terms of imposing priorities and precepts on states. Yet, ultimately, no one can ignore their economic interests. As a rule, these interests are more stable, more rational and less subject to the influence of subjective factors than political precepts. Comparing the two most memorable attempts to unite Eurasia in the past – one by force (the Mongol Empire) and one through trade (the Great Silk Road), we cannot but conclude that trade ties generally proved a more reliable unification tool than armed violence.

Consequently, Eurasian unification today should start with the economy. The Partnership envisions consistent progress towards a network of free trade areas and inter-regional trade and economic alliances, and connecting integration projects throughout the vast Eurasian space. It is crucial that the practice of politicizing economic ties be eliminated and unilateral economic sanctions or other forms of economic pressure as a foreign policy instrument be abandoned.

We are clearly talking about an extremely ambitious project here that will take decades to implement, at the very least. It would not be much of an exaggeration to say that the economic consolidation of Eurasia would be the most ambitious integration project of the 21st century. Nevertheless, we can already identify several basic principles that underlie this initiative and set it apart from other plans of Eurasian unification. Let us list of the most important of these principles.

First, the Partnership is not viewed as a potential competitor for regional integration structures (ASEAN, EAEU, RCEP) or trans-border economic projects (BRI) or organizations (the SCO, APEC, ASEM). On the contrary, all of those structures, projects and organizations are seen as nodes and individual parts of the future single Eurasian economic mechanism. The objective of the Partnership is to assemble these parts and nodes together without detriment to those elements that have already demonstrated their efficiency.

Second, the Partnership is not a union of the Eurasian East against the European West. Ultimately, Europe is a large peninsula in the north-west of the Eurasian continent, and it should not be opposed to Eurasia – rather, it should become an integral part of it. Therefore, the Partnership remains open for the European Union, which could join the activities of the Partnership in the forms and to the extent that it deems appropriate.

Third, when building the Partnership, the parties need to proceed from the understanding that significant differences will remain in the models of their social, political and even economic development. Eurasia has socialist states and liberal democracies, market and planned economies. The Partnership does not set itself the task of eliminating political plurality and imposing some common denominator or a single set of values. The activities of the Partnership should be based on universally recognized norms of international law and offer the best level of comfort for all participants. Equally, the Partnership should not have leaders and outsiders, “pilots” and “wingmen,” a “central nucleus” and a “periphery,” as is the case with many integration projects.

Fourth, unlike the rigid integration structures like the European Union, the Partnership envisages highly flexible forms of involving individual states or their regional groups in its activities. As they are ready, these countries may join individual dimensions of the Partnership (trade, finance, infrastructure, visa, etc.) with due account of their current needs and capabilities.

Fifth, even though the Partnership is focused on the economic unification of the Eurasian continent, the expansion of economic interaction will inevitably influence other areas of cooperation, such as science and education, culture and humanitarian contacts. Eurasian integration will fail if it is reduced to increasing trade and investment. Social interaction between the peoples of Eurasia and the economic cooperation between Eurasian states should supplement and stimulate each other.

Sixth, it is impossible to develop economic integration projects in Eurasia without simultaneously creating a parallel process of bolstering continental security and resolving problems inherited from the 20th century and earlier. These problems include territorial disputes, separatism, the “divided peoples” phenomenon, the arms race, the danger of WMD proliferation, international terrorism and religious extremism. Consequently, the building of the Partnership should go hand in hand with developing mechanisms for military and political cooperation on the continent, such as the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA).

Seventh, implementing the Partnership project should never mean “Eurasian isolationism,” i.e. closing Eurasian states off from partners in other regions, be it Africa, or North or South America. On the contrary, migration within the Eurasian space should serve as a powerful incentive for further developing economic ties in the basins of the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian oceans, and for achieving progress in resolving such universal human problems as climate change, combating pandemics, ensuring food and energy security, and managing migration.

Eighth, the building of the “Greater Eurasian Partnership” should proceed from the ground up, and not top-down, that is, it should be based on specific, even if very modest agreements between regional integration unions and individual states. Concluding the work on connecting the EAEU and the BRI should be the crucial first stage in building the Partnership. Creating independent Eurasian payment systems and rating agencies, decreasing dependence on the U.S. Dollar, establishing a Eurasian economic information centre like the OECD, etc., are other promising areas of activity.

Even though the idea of the “Greater Eurasian Partnership” was first put forward about five years ago, we are still in the very beginning of a lengthy historical project. At the moment, we can only talk about some very preliminary pencil sketches of the very complex Eurasian structure of the future. These sketches contain more questions about the future of our continent than they do answers. This is why broad international expert interaction to work out individual elements of the future roadmap for this colossal continental project is particularly important today. Bilateral cooperation between Russian and Chinese experts in international relations, economics, sociology and security could play a very important role in this process.

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Development of human capital is the key goal of BRICS: The outcomes of BRICS Civil Forum 2020

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On September 23-25, the international multimedia press center of Russia hosted an online conference in Moscow, focusing on the results of the BRICS Civil Forum 2020.

Speakers listed the cases and measures pertaining to their implementation as part of previous groups, and announced the topics of their upcoming meetings.

Victoria Panova, co-chair of the BRICS Civil Forum and Managing Director of the National Committee on BRICS Research, said that a total of eight working groups were present at the forum, including dedicated groups on ecology, digital economy, culture, science and education. Panova pointed to the development of human capital as the primary goal of the forum.

“We all remember how, during a meeting by world leaders in Brazil, Vladimir Putin laid out measures aimed at boosting the living standards and quality of life of the peoples of the five BRICS countries as the main goal of this organization,” she emphasized.

Each year, the BRICS organization is becoming more independent and cohesive across the board, including through the use of digital technologies.

Victoria Panova also enumerated the main recommendations and measures based on the results of the work done by some groups. For example, recommendations made by the Healthcare group in 2015 on measures to handle a global pandemic have been supplemented. As part of the Education and Science group, the BRICS Network University and the BRICS University League have been created and now start working together. The group on ecology, which faces a host of paramount and urgent tasks, deserved a special mention.

Oleg Zhiganov, co-chairman of the BRICS Civil Forum’s Information Strategies and Society working group, said that they would concentrate on the issue of post-truth in the modern-day media of the BRICS countries.

“During this event, we agreed with our colleagues that we will speak the truth and nothing but the truth,” Zhiganov said, having in mind critical approach and fact-checking in a rapidly developing information society.

“The main thing that we are going to discuss is providing support for educational projects in universities and schools in order to instill a sense of critical thinking in young people and the ability to assess the objectivity of certain facts,” Zhiganov noted.

Natalia Tsaizer, co-chair of the BRICS Civil Forum’s Women and Girls working group, shared the results of her group’s meetings, highlighting the current issue of gender equality in the BRICS countries. She noted that her working group is out to eliminate gender imbalance and equalize men and women when it comes to career growth and their role in decision-making structures, including in the military.

“There are a huge number of areas in the economy, politics, and the social sphere, where women are underestimated in terms of their involvement in the processes, not only as observers, performers and ‘beautifiers’ of the working process, but as actors ready to make decisions, set goals and implement them,” Tsaizer said.

The issue of gender equality is extremely relevant not only in the BRICS countries, but elsewhere in the world. However, while it is imperative to provide equal opportunities for men and women to be involved in various organizations, Natalia Tsaizer still warned against sliding into what she described as “militant feminism.” The participants in the working group’s meeting proposed involving women in the decision-making process in various areas, and setting up anti-crisis committees within BRICS where women would make up at least 50 percent of their membership. 

“On the one hand, this is quotas, but on the other, this is something we just can’t do without because we need to regulate our presence that we could rely on,” Tsaizer argued. She also noted that right now the working group consists of women only, since men are not very actively involved in tackling such issues, even though achieving gender balance is high on the agenda of the Women and Girls group.

Stepan Kanakin, the coordinator of the BRICS Civil Forum, answered questions regarding the technical aspects of organizing the forum in conditions of a pandemic.

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Did Russia-China Relations Successfully Pass the “COVID,” “Hong Kong,” “India” and “Belarus” Tests?

Danil Bochkov

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image credit: kremlin.ru

Russia-China relations have been steadily improving since at least 2013, when the leaders of both countries presented a joint statement calling for deepening bilateral relations of “comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination.” This formula has been modified with an addition of the “new era,” signifying both countries recognising new global challenges and the changing geopolitical environment. COVID-19 has largely contributed to the intensification of certain trends, including antagonism with the U.S. and the pursuit of more robust bilateral ties.

If before both countries would challenge and combat U.S. hostility (economic sanctions, political pressure, adversary rhetoric, etc.) mainly on their own, they are now more inclined to align and coordinate actions to elaborate more coherent voices towards the West. In late July, Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs stressed that the U.S. could not drive a wedge between Russia and China by expecting Moscow to join its anti-China alliance. Rather, Russia views further improvement of relations with China as a major factor that will contribute to stability in global politics.

In May, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs noted that, amid the virus outbreak, bilateral support between Russia and China became a safe fortress for “political viruses.” During a telephone conversation in July, Putin and Xi stressed that the agenda for the strategic partnership in Russia-China relations was materialised during the pandemic in the form of mutual help provided at a critical moment.

China and Russia have recently demonstrated the historical legacy of their close relations through the publication of a co-authored report by Russian and Chinese ambassadors to the U.S. The report unambiguously states that all countries must combine their efforts to tackle pressing issues such as climate change, terrorism, world pandemics, economic downturns, etc. These concerns are all focal points in which Russia and China have achieved mutual understanding.

Notably, even during the very vague political gridlock of the Belarusian leadership in the aftermath of the August presidential elections, China and Russia immediately demonstrated their support to the re-elected president Lukashenko. While President Putin congratulated the Belarusian president with a telegram, President Xi-Jinping opted for a personal phone call, during which he reassured Mr Lukashenko of China’s strong commitment to “push forward Chinese-Belarusian comprehensive strategic partnership.” Such profound political signals did not go unnoticed in Minsk, which has expressed gratitude to Russia and China for their support during these challenging times. China’s position on Belarus is important for Russia, as Moscow regards Belarus as its closest and most faithful ally. Belarus is now moving towards a higher level of political and economic integration with Russia, becoming a “Union State.”

As a signal of recognition and respect for Chinese core interests, Russia extended its support to China over Hong Kong, which came under the global spotlight following the introduction of the National Security Law in June. In a very crucial moment for China, when it received widespread criticism from all other major powers, Russia bluntly stressed that “the situation in Hong Kong as a purely internal matter of China,” thus fending off all speculation on the city’s juridical status.

China and Russia have recently vowed to strengthen their coordination on international platforms, which was seen in early July in the UN during their opposition to the extension of cross-border aid in Syria. The opposition to the U.S. initiative in June within the UN Security Council to reimpose an arms embargo on Iran following the break-up of the 2015 nuclear deal was another display of harmonised action. Multiple international issues were touched upon during the meeting between the Russian and Chinese foreign ministers on September 11. Both countries reaffirmed the “closeness of their views on effective solutions to them,” and stressed that “the destructive character of Washington’s actions undermines global strategic stability.” Overall, the meeting once again confirmed the shared views of Russia and China in both the multilateral and bilateral dimensions.

The Russia-India-China format has made significant progress after a period of relatively little activity. The latest gathering of the RIC group took place in June. At that time, Moscow highlighted that India-China border conflicts were to be solved based on bilateral agreements only. Recently, Moscow has initiated negotiations between the defence ministers of India and China in order to find conflict mitigation solutions. As a result, Chinese and Indian officials met for the first time since the border dispute in May.

By organising peace talks involving China and India, Russia is playing a critical role in regional affairs. The upcoming meeting of the respective ministers of foreign affairs reinforces this statement. Meanwhile, the U.S. has repeatedly pitched its own candidacy as an intermediary, with the most recent attempt in early September. Russian media positioned the Moscow-hosted China-India meeting on September 10 as a rare foreign policy success. During their “frank and constructive” discussion in Moscow, India and China reached an important agreement to deescalate border tensions which are not in “the interest of either side.”

Economically, Sino-Russian cooperation experienced a COVID-19 blow, with trade volume falling by 5,6 per cent in June, amounting to USD 50 billion. Although it may have a tangible impact on the annual statistics, moving the 2019-set milestone for 2024 away from the predicted USD 200 billion in trade follows the global trend of economic contraction, with consumer demand in free fall. For example, the overall volume of Chinese foreign trade from January to June dropped by 6,6 per cent. However, this trade contraction reflects more about global trade dynamics at the moment than changes in Russia-China relations.

As a recent sign of combined efforts to contain U.S. global ambitions, Russia and China were able to decrease U.S. dollar transaction for trade to its historical minimum – from 51 per cent in 2019 to 46 per cent in 2020. The same trend for intensified bilateral cooperation can also be seen in the energy sphere. Following the successful launch of “Power of Siberia” last December, the Russian state energy giant “Gazprom” is embracing a new audacious initiative, the “Power of Siberia-2” gas pipeline. The project will connect Russia, China and Mongolia. On behalf of the President of Russia, Gazprom started the design and survey work on the project in May.

Energy cooperation remains a crucial element of bilateral relations. Fresh statistics show that in July, Russia once again secured its position as the largest importer of oil to China, with a 30 per cent spike. This amounted to 7.38 million tons (compared to 2019). In April, Russia took over Saudi Arabia as the biggest crude oil supplier, delivering 7.2 million tons. This is 18 per cent more than in 2019.

Russia-China relations represent a “strategic partnership,” which means that the two countries view themselves as partners on strategic issues. Indeed, on a majority of topics, be it global governance, world economic structure, geopolitics or security, Russia and China are on the same page. Many of them are of strategic significance pertaining to both sides. Both countries enjoy fruitful cooperation on multilateral platforms such as BRICS, SCO and the UN.

Nevertheless, despite their flawless facade, Russia-China relations have a weak spot – their difference in strategic and national interests. This is normal for global powers. For example, Beijing can never compromise its core national interests such as the South China Sea (SCS), Xinjiang, Taiwan, and Tibet, even to please its tried and tested partner, Moscow. This explains why China has repeatedly pressured Vietnam to halt all oil extraction activities in the SCS over the last two years. This has resulted in Vietnam suspending business cooperation in the SCS with the Russian state oil giant, Rosneft. On the other hand, Russia will never put its core interests at risk (especially concerning territorial integrity), irrespective of Beijing’s rhetoric concerning Russian Far East territories.

As long as Russia and China base their partnership on coinciding strategic interests and avoid any ubiquitous and provocative moves – their relations are likely to remain in the current burgeoning state or under the best circumstances can even be elevated to a higher level. Overall, during the first half of the year, relations between China and Russia were challenged several times. Despite some small cracks, like decreasing trade and frictions regarding energy projects in the South China Sea, their flawless mutual propaganda remains untarnished. As long as they can maintain a close and mutually beneficial bilateral tie, they should be able to endure any future challenges with ease.

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