As expected, and perhaps deserved, Russia has emerged from the intense frenzy that was the Crimean dispute – on-going and by no means resolved – isolated in the international community. It is difficult to understand quite what the tactics of Russian President Vladimir Putin were/are; i.e. it is unclear whether the Crimean dispute was intended to test the pliancy of international justice, or the agency of his own hard power, or in fact, quite innocently, invaded the Ukraine on the grounds of protecting ethnic Russians. No one is really buying this last theory, though; this is after all the twenty first century, not 1853. Regardless of motivation, Putin did break international law – in place to protect the territorial sovereignty of nation-states – and despite historical Western hypocrisy in defending such theoretical territorial sovereignty – see Iraq, Afghanistan among others -, there was much international condemnation of Putin’s actions. Since Russia’s self-isolation, Putin has sought alternative options on the global strategic stage. Potential plans to ally with NATO now out the window, Moscow has called upon the apparently ‘commodified’ friendship of the Chinese to re-establish itself as a player amongst the global powers. A new energy deal has been drawn up which has distinct implications for the international system, from the Russian, Chinese and ‘Western’ perspectives.
China and Russia signed a gas exchange last week worth roughly $400bn over the next 30 years, in which state-owned Russian natural gas firm Gazprom will sell directly to Chinese distributor Chinese National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), which is the parent company of PetroChina (one of the most valuable companies in the world along with Apple, ExxonMobil and others). The primary motivation for the deal, apparent due to its timing, is surely based on Western (US, Canada, EU and Japan) sanctions against Russia for Putin’s violation of international law in invading Ukrainian territory. First and foremost, Russia needs trading partners for its reserves of natural resources. Elsewhere, from the Chinese perspective, the CCP have already declared a responsibility to tackle air pollution across the country, and the substitution of coal for Russian natural gas is a step in the right direction to improving both the physical health of the Chinese population and the political health of the Party. As a side note, it was interesting to see Gazprom’s marketing policies on show at the UEFA Champions League final in Portugal this Saturday just gone. It seems that liberal economics has managed to transcend international politics somewhat; or perhaps the marketing opportunity at the game was too good to miss.
To the Chinese, although the deal is both politically and economically important, it may not be of particular international significance to them. Chinese perception of territorial disputes has already proven to be different to that of others; in many instances of maritime clashes with Southeast Asian neighbours, history is often claimed as justification for Chinese hegemony over the entirety of the South China Sea, much of which is also claimed by Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines. History is in question over the sovereignty of Crimea, given its connections with various political structures in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, although its greatest historical allegiance lies with Russia. Therefore, the Ukraine incident may not play into Chinese economic diplomacy much. Also, according to the Economist, China’s trade with Russia, to Beijing at least, ‘barely registers compared to China’s trade with America and Europe’. Sino-Russian cosiness, as portrayed in Western media, may not in fact be as such in Beijing itself.
Where does this leave the West, then? The rise of China as an economic superpower with a huge air force has always been somewhat of a complicated issue for Western foreign policy makers. To various realists dotted around the White House and Whitehall, the resource deal between the Chinese and the Russians may seem nothing more than big business, backed by Putin’s smirk and Chinese President Xi Jinping’s pragmatic frown. It is difficult to argue that it is not significant, however, given the economic nature of the sanctions placed upon Russia in recent weeks, and the reciprocal sanctions placed on Westerners. It is clear that even in the most realpolitik delusion, economics influences politics – if it is not dictated by it. The physical meeting of Putin and Jinping, on the 25th anniversary of Mikhail Gorbachev’s visit to Deng Xiaoping, then head of an isolated People’s Republic of China, also suggests a diplomatic twist to an otherwise orthodox energy deal.
Others, liberals perhaps, might be pleased at the newfound friendship. Alliances between large powers and aggressive states, for example China and North Korea – not to liken Putin to North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un – have proved fruitful in the past in preserving international peace, which for some is the principle goal of international politics. Interdependence between China and Russia may encourage both to defuse their foreign relations. It may, indirectly, also allow the West to trade with Russia without breaking sanction terms, if such sanctions increase in intensity. It could be suggested, however, that the liberals miss the power potential of a growing alliance, economic or political, between the China and Russia. A Sino-Soviet alliance once threatened the hegemony of the United States, and a partnership between Beijing and Moscow could do again.
However, the episode does seem to reveal more about China than it does about Russia. Putin was bound to change tact and explore alternative options in international relations. The Chinese, however, have shown themselves to be more interested economics than politics. How this might play out in further negotiations between Russia and the West is yet to be seen, especially given the, perhaps naïve, Western compromise of trade with Russia for the defence of international territorial law. It could be supposed that this had to be done, to avoid the global disintegration of nation-states into a borderless frenzy. Not that that stopped anyone before the UN was created. Western hypocrisy in the defence of territorial borders will surely be brought to the table again before long, given the American enthusiasm to invade Syria last July, and now the near-intervention over Crimea.
Elsewhere, others such as constructivists might consider Putin’s rhetoric to be the pleas of a desperate politician. International suspicion of his regime is intense, despite the apparent success of the Sochi Winter Olympics this February just gone. The Russian people, if they are ever given a chance, may reject Putin soon. It is perhaps the behaviour of China that is more interesting. The rise of the PRC continues to confound political theorists, and predicting China’s moves is proving increasingly difficult. Beijing continues to prod its fingers into as many pies as possible, including attempting to establish the Renminbi as an alternative global currency to the American Dollar (this website has published twice on Chinese currency deals, one with Brazil [http://wp.me/p3g0mz-1a] and one with the UK [http://wp.me/p3g0mz-2E]). How significant this economic friendship with Russia will be is to be watched with anticipation.