Picture: Pavel Byrkin/Sputnik/Kremlin via REUTERS – Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping attend a reception at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia March 21, 2023.
By Ishaan Tharoor
Whatever the talk of a “no-limits” friendship means, it’s the business deals that count. On the second day of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Russia, the two countries agreed to a set of proposals that would expand their natural gas trade, as well as other economic ties.
The proposed deals represent something of a lifeline for Russian President Vladimir Putin, isolated from the West because of sanctions imposed on Russia after his decision to wage a full-blown war across the border in Ukraine. At the centre of discussions in Moscow is a new planned pipeline, dubbed “Power of Siberia 2”, that could supply China with about 50 billion cubic meters of Russian gas annually.
“The pipeline, which would pass through Mongolia, has been under discussion for years. But the project took on greater urgency for Russia after its natural gas trade with Europe stopped last year because of its invasion of Ukraine,” my Washington Post colleagues reported.
“By 2030, Putin said, Russia will supply China with at least 98 billion cubic meters, in addition to 100 million tons of liquefied natural gas, through the new pipeline.”
The Kremlin is grateful for the vast appetite and requirements of the Chinese economy. “Russian business is in a position to meet the growing demand from the Chinese economy for energy carriers both within the framework of current projects and those that are now in the process of negotiation,” Putin told reporters after Tuesday’s meetings.
Some observers in Moscow recognise a perhaps humiliating new reality taking root. “The logic of events dictates that we fully become a Chinese resource colony,” a source closely linked to the Kremlin told the Financial Times, before pointing to the expanding role of Chinese tech companies within Russia.
“Our servers will be from Huawei. We will be China’s major supplier of everything. They will get gas from Power of Siberia. By the end of 2023, the yuan (renminbi) will be our main trade currency.”
Last year, Xi unveiled a parallel vision for a Western-led order, dubbed the “Global Security Initiative” (GSI). Even when refined by subsequent “concept papers” issued by Beijing, the initiative remains a largely vague set of principles – US critics have dubbed them “platitudes” – about world peace and neighbourly relations.
But even in its vacuous outlines, analysts see a Chinese desire to move away from the alliance systems and global security architecture that the US ushered into place in the aftermath of World War II, a status quo built by a Washington that Beijing frequently complains is still gripped by a “Cold War mentality”.
In various forums, from meetings of the BRICS nations and Shanghai Co-operation Organisation to newspapers in countries as far-flung as Kenya and the Solomon Islands, Chinese officials have touted the “GSI” as a new platform for global partnership. In some instances, their foreign counterparts have welcomed the rhetoric.
China has “been very carefully constructing this new basically Asian and then global order”, David Arase, resident professor of international politics at the Hopkins-Nanjing Centre, told Nikkei Asia Review in November. “Right from that time, they sort of laid down the fundamental principles, and they’re filling in the details as they go along.”
For years, the meat on the bones of what this Chinese order may look like has been economic – think of massive efforts like the Belt and Road Initiative, where Chinese state companies invest in major infrastructure projects around the world.
But as Xi settles into his third term as de facto president for life, we are also seeing the emergence of China as a more capable political actor. A case in point is Beijing’s recent brokering of rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran. “China’s position as a secondary great power has allowed it to free ride on the American security umbrella without incurring the same security costs and without facing the same strategic dilemmas,” wrote Amr Hamzawy of the Carnegie Middle East Programme.
“This appears to be changing. By mediating the Saudi-Iranian normalisation agreement, China is veering into new territory, expanding its regional footprint from economic exchange to negotiated conflict resolution.”
That doesn’t mean China is driving any meaningful effort toward peace right now between Russia and Ukraine. “Chinese officials … calculate (correctly) that neither Russia nor Ukraine wants peace talks at the moment, as both believe they can make advances on the battlefield,” noted the Economist.
“Xi’s peace posturing is thus more about burnishing his international image while undermining America’s, and positioning China to take advantage of whatever emerges from the war.” This opportunism is matched by a more overt sense of ambition.
In an interview with geopolitical analyst Bruno Maçães, Zhou Bo – a retired colonel in the People’s Liberation Army and a senior fellow at the Centre for International Security and Strategy at Tsinghua University in Beijing – offered a new expression to frame the moment. “We are talking about Global China,” Zhou said, borrowing the language of post-Brexit Britain.
“When (former British prime minister) Boris Johnson talked about Global Britain, it was probably more rhetorical. But Global China is definitely real. China is ubiquitous. China’s influence is everywhere.” In the face of this, the Biden administration has set about confronting China on various fronts, engaging in a full-blown trade war over key technologies, tightening security partnerships with other regional powers in Asia and putting itself at the forefront of an ideological clash between liberal democracies and autocracies elsewhere.
But Washington’s perceived hawkishness is a source of tension for countries elsewhere. “Few in Southeast Asia look forward to a future of Chinese regional hegemony. Most, therefore, want the US to play a balancing role, alongside Australia, Japan, India and others,” wrote James Crabtree, executive director of the Asia office of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
At the same time, he added, “regional leaders are also anxious about Washington’s deteriorating ties with Beijing”, and the potential for instability and conflict that may follow. In an op-ed for The Washington Post, Fareed Zakaria lamented the rigid thinking in Washington that has made dialogue with a host of autocratic regimes difficult, if not impossible, and opened more space for China on the world stage to play a more proactive role.
“America’s unipolar status has corrupted the country’s foreign policy elite,” Zakaria wrote. “Our foreign policy is all too often an exercise in making demands and issuing threats and condemnations. There is very little effort made to understand the other side’s views or actually negotiate.”
Whether you think it’s true or not, that more level-headed approach is the one Beijing claims to be taking.
Ishaan Tharoor is a columnist on the foreign desk of The Washington Post, where he authors the Today’s WorldView newsletter and column
The article was first published in The Washington Post