Stronger together: Moving from space exploration to nuclear utilities

Authors: Zamira Sadykova and Gao Tian-ya*

It seems uneasy to term the current Sino-Russian strategic partnership in light of the conventional concept. Although both sides have stated that they are not ready for becoming alliance in a traditional sense, the two great powers of Eurasia have earnestly enhanced their strategic relations to the highest-level ever seen in history. Since China and Russia have upheld the “New Type of Major-Power Relationship” that refers to mutual respect and win-win cooperation, they argue that the traditional “power politics” based on alliances and confrontation is a leftover from the past era and is evidently anachronistic in the 21st century.

Yet, given that the world is undergoing the vicissitudes in a century, China and Russia have steadily cemented their strategic relationship that covers all the major aspects and core interest of the two countries. As Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov said previously, “We have built up all our consensuses in the assessment of the international situations, and shared the common interests in the approaches to the tasks which have to be solved under the UN authority. For sure, we have different opinions from time to time, but we are ready to discuss all the issues honestly, with the facts on the table, and of course on the basis of mutual respect.” It refers that the new type of international relations spearheaded by China and Russia would make positive contributions to the stability of the international order.

China-Russia cooperation has been remarkable in many areas. For instance, in April the planned bilateral lunar research base is seen as a microcosm for larger geopolitical moves because the two great space and nuclear powers aim to change the US-led unipolar world order. As an U.S. expert in space science observed that a lunar research station on the moon jointly run by China and Russia will present America with a challenge it likely cannot pass up this 21st century race to the moon. Echoing the remark, political scientist Graham Allison also said, the plans to develop a Chinese-Russian International Lunar Research Station continue a burgeoning trend of building an alternative security system.

On May 19, Chinese President Xi Jinping and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin kick started the China-Russia nuclear energy project via a virtual opening ceremony. On the 20-year anniversary of the signing of the China-Russia Treaty of Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation, this groundbreaking project sets a major milestone of a new type of major-country relations for the benefit of the two countries and the wider international community. As it is well-known, energy cooperation has been one prominent area of cooperation between China and Russia. Accordingly, this project testified the joint construction of four VVER-1200 reactors at two nuclear power plants in China. The dimensions of the joint project are highly praised by Chinese President who co-chaired the opening ceremony. As he opined the project as the flagship one, Xi called for setting up an exemplar of global nuclear energy cooperation by adhering to “putting safety first”. He also said that the project will deepen nuclear energy technological cooperation by adhering to the driving force of innovation. As a result, the project will promote the coordinated development of the governance system of the global energy industry by adhering to multilateralism. Echoing Xi’s remarks, President Putin also exhibited confidence over the strategic cooperation in a wider range of sectors.

The joint project can be traced to the strategic cooperation between China and Russia in 2018. Accordingly, its successful launch in 2021 demonstrates the tangible results of the bilateral cooperation on nuclear energy and hi-tech innovation, which are expected to boost further cooperation in a wider range of areas, including what we discussed the space collaboration previously. Now since the two countries made commitments to shifting to a green economy and fighting climate change, civilian utilization of nuclear energy is becoming the most promising sector. This project is seen as a concrete step to effectively reduce greenhouse gas emissions and honor commitments to meeting the target of carbon neutrality. To that end, both sides make full use of their comparative advantages in economic structure, facilitated trade and investment, and promoted regional economic integration against the tide of rising protectionism and unilateralism elsewhere in the world.

In addition, China and Russia have continued upholding strategic partnership instead of alliance with a view to safeguarding peace and stability in the region instead of targeting a third party. As reiterated by Beijing and Moscow, since both countries are permanent members of the UN Security Council, they like to cooperate sincerely on confronting transnational challenges, coordinating on major regional issues, and improving global governance, including their commitment to steeper cuts in emissions from coal-fired power plants and shifting to technologies like wind, solar, nuclear, or carbon capture. In light of what has been discussed above, this article argues for stronger together as China and Russia set out moving their strategic partnership into a new era of the space and nuclear energy cooperation.

There is no doubt that both China and Russia vow to learn the lessons from the tragedies of the Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear disasters. They are thereby determined to make a huge contribution to environmental and nuclear safety issues and set an example for global nuclear energy cooperation. They will persist in technological innovation-driven and deepen the management of nuclear energy in a more strict way. As in the 21st century wherein high and new technology has become an important indicator of comprehensive national strength, the term “innovation-driven” has not only appeared repeatedly in China’s domestic policies, but also been highlighted in its foreign policy. Due to this, the in-depth cooperation between China and Russia in nuclear energy will increase the leverage and status of the two countries on global energy governance issues.

In brief, the Sino-Russia comprehensive strategic partnership in the new era will continue to maintain a relatively high level of development. This is not only because of the actual benefits bilateral cooperation in high-tech fields such as space and nuclear energy, but also owing to strategic consensuses and common beliefs in stronger together in dealing with the uncertain issues in the world which is besieged by all kinds of monsters such as terrorists, unilateralists, and war-adventurers.

* Gao Tian-ya is a MA student at Zhou Enlai School of Government, Nankai University.

Zamira Sadykova
Zamira Sadykova
Zamira Sadykova is a PhD student in the field of International Relations at SIPA, Jilin University