Xi Jinping faces a significant foreign policy problem in his relations with Russia. Russia and China have very different objectives, levels of global influence, and perspectives on the post-Cold War world order. Understanding the Xi administration’s geopolitical conundrum is crucial for the rest of the world. The Chinese leadership believes that maintaining a positive relationship, or even a partnership, with Russia should not come at the expense of alienating Western nations. Returning to the Chinese term “bloc politics” (jituan zhengzhi) is not in China’s best interests.
Russia and China’s dynamic dialogue is regaining momentum. Sergey Lavrov, the foreign minister of Russia, declared that Sino-Russian ties were at their highest point in history. The leaders of China and Russia are now inclined to show unity to combat what they perceive to be a “formidable threat”. Russian crude oil exports to China reached a new high of 8.4 million tonnes in May, surpassing Saudi Arabia. Russia has continued to be China’s top oil supplier in recent months.
China-Russia space cooperation has advanced to a new stage in lunar and deep space exploration. The number of educational exchanges between China and Russia has increased significantly. In 2007, it was 7,261; in 2017, it reached over 18,000 people. Some well-known figures in China’s aerospace and aviation sectors attended Russian universities. Before the COVID-19 pandemic of 2019, 8 percent of international students in China were Russian.
Fujian Party Secretary Yin Li (1962) is a returnee with a Russian education. Hu Xijin (1960), a social media guru, served as editor-in-chief of the Chinese government-sponsored Global Times. Some influential conservative opinion leaders in contemporary China have extensive backgrounds in Russia. Hu Yaobao has been regarded as the nation’s top “wolf fighter” pursuing the United States. Lü Yansong, who spent many years in Russia as a People’s Daily correspondent, was recently appointed to the position. An increasing number of Chinese military commanders have had their training in Russia.
The worrying events in Europe, particularly the extent, magnitude, and devastation of the continuing Russia-Ukraine war, have alarmed the whole globe, including China. China’s economy, the second largest in the world, has been severely impacted by both the horrific impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the global economy and by potential (and actual) secondary economic sanctions led by the United States and NATO against China as a result of Beijing’s close ties to Moscow.
Unsurprisingly, there is considerable disagreement among elite groups, including intellectuals, businesspeople, and government officials, over how China should place itself in this quickly shifting international context. Several Chinese critics have argued on social media that Beijing shouldn’t permit Russia to subvert Chinese foreign policy. The fact that China’s global engagement in the reform era, including significant educational and cultural exchanges overseas, has been mainly with Western countries, especially the United States, and not with Russia, as explained in the previous article in this series, is primarily responsible for the differing viewpoints on this critical foreign policy issue.
As Xi Jinping strives to create leadership unity and policy consensus on the eve of the 20th Party Congress, this presents a significant challenge on the front of foreign policy for Zhongnanhai. Understanding the Xi administration’s geopolitical conundrum and formulating its strategy for developing China-Russia relations is crucial for the rest of the world.
An essential problem for Beijing’s foreign policy
The Chinese leadership faces a significant foreign policy problem in its relations with Russia, which does not require one to be an expert in international politics to comprehend. Russia and China have very different geopolitical objectives, levels of global influence, and perspectives on the post-Cold War world order. While Russia has been significantly damaged by the post-Cold War international order and is sometimes considered no more than a “regional power,” President Obama hailed China as an emerging global power that has profited enormously from post-Cold War economic globalisation.
The Chinese leadership believes that maintaining a positive relationship, or even a partnership, with Russia should not come at the expense of alienating Western nations, particularly the EU, China’s biggest trading partner this year. Returning to what the Chinese term “bloc politics” (jituan zhengzhi), the time when two antagonistic blocs coexisted in the early Cold War, is not in China’s best interests. A Chinese official think tank professor recently wrote, “The Western countries have now joined as a result of the Russian-Ukrainian crisis, and they have exhibited a clear strategic posture of binding China and Russia together.”
Chinese officials, meanwhile, have asserted that NATO’s eastward expansion mainly causes Russian aggression; as a result, Beijing has not denounced it. The Chinese authorities also clearly state that they do not want the US and NATO to defeat Russia. They think that after Russia’s potentially devastating defeat in this conflict, the United States and its allies will concentrate their efforts on subduing China, which some in Washington regard as the “more fearsome enemy.”
The U.S.’s recent actions have confirmed Beijing’s judgement of this bleak future for China. Examples include Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy; President Biden’s repeated declarations that the United States will “protect Taiwan militarily,” and the bipartisan “Taiwan Policy Act 2022” passed by the U.S. The American Congress, which included Taiwan as “a non-NATO ally,” the “chip alliance” or “semiconductor industry alliance,” intended to restrain China’s advancement in this crucial area of technology, and Western rhetoric about “democracy versus dictatorship” binary opposition.
In light of the current situation, the Chinese leadership appears to have intensified its ties with Russia and increased its involvement in international organizations like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) (SCO, which includes China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan). Although U.S. government officials have confirmed that China has not given Russia any military equipment, Beijing has not backed economic sanctions against Russia.
Notably, Russian President Vladimir Putin even warned the media during the recent SCO summit in Uzbekistan that China has “questions and worries” over the conflict in Ukraine. However, contrary to what some Western media outlets have reported, this does not imply that China’s strategic ties with Russia are “shaky.” Xi Jinping said during his meeting with Putin in Uzbekistan, “China and Russia are willing to provide support on problems involving each other’s basic interests.” Beijing wants to clarify that the United States and Europe shouldn’t take their support for Taiwan’s independence too far. If they do, China will assist Russia even more.
Russia and China’s dynamic dialogue is regaining momentum.
In the years to come, it seems likely that China and the United States will maintain their mutually reinforcing fear and hostility in regional and international security areas. Understanding the fascinating China-Russia relationship in this larger framework is essential, especially in light of its potential future course. Understanding the expanding multifaceted areas of collaboration between Beijing and Moscow over the past ten years is also beneficial.
The leaders of China and Russia are now inclined to show unity to combat what they perceive to be a “formidable threat” from the U.S.-led military bloc, despite the lack of an “ideological glue,” in the words of the late Zbigniew Brzezinski, or mutual trust between the peoples of these two former rivals (from the 1960s to the end of the 1980s). Sergey Lavrov, the foreign minister of Russia, declared that Sino-Russian ties were at their highest point in history during his visit to China in March 2021 to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the “Treaty on Good-Neighbor and Friendly Cooperation between Russia and China.” Lavrov went on to say that he and his Chinese counterpart, Foreign Minister Wang Yi, agreed that the interaction between Russian and Chinese foreign policy remains crucial in world geopolitics.
Empirical evidence from bilateral trade flows, Russia’s energy supplies to China, the rise in the number of settlements using their currencies, and collaboration in other industries, including agriculture and aerospace, supports such an interpretation. China and Russia’s combined bilateral trade volume in 2021 was $147 billion. Compared to last year’s time, trade between China and Russia has increased by about 30% in the six months since the start of the Russian-Ukrainian War. Sino-Russian commerce is anticipated to reach a record high of over $170 billion this year.
Russian crude oil exports to China reached a new high of 8.4 million tonnes in May, surpassing Saudi Arabia to become the country’s largest crude oil supplier. This is an increase of approximately 55 percent from the 5.4 million tonnes exported to China in the same month last year. Russia has continued to be China’s top oil supplier in recent months. The “Power of Siberia 1” pipeline, which started in 2019, has consistently transported more natural gas to China than was agreed upon and is anticipated to reach 20 billion cubic meters this year. The contracting process for the “Power of Siberia 2” pipeline is presently underway. It will supply China with around 50 billion cubic metres of natural gas annually.
The proportion of RMB in bilateral trade settlements between China and Russia has climbed from 3.1 percent in 2014 to 17.5 percent in 2020, according to what Zhang Hanhui, the Chinese ambassador to Russia, told the media earlier this year. According to official Russian records, the percentage of bilateral trade settlements made in RMB or rubles between China and Russia might range from 45 to 65 percent this year.
The Chinese government promotes most of the 4,300 km of border lines in China’s three northeastern provinces (particularly Heilongjiang) and the Russian Far East through coordinated efforts. The formation of China’s national energy strategic reserve base and the development of agricultural products, industry, and construction projects are among the areas where Beijing believes this will help forward the long-delayed “revitalization of the three northeast provinces.” The Russian Far East reportedly lacks the substantial labor force needed for agricultural development, and 30% of the foreign labor in the area is from China, according to official Chinese media.
China-Russian space cooperation has advanced to a new stage of vigorous development in lunar and deep space exploration, human-crewed spaceflight, satellite navigation, earth observation, and other applications. This cooperation is widely regarded as an important area of the comprehensive strategic partnership. In an agreement signed in 2021, China and Russia agreed to work together to build an international lunar research station. As the U.S.-based China Aerospace Studies Institute noted, China may still greatly profit from Russian knowledge in this field despite its recent advancements in aerospace and aviation technology and R&D emphasis on engine design.
Some well-known figures in China’s aerospace and aviation sectors attended Russian universities. For instance, Wang Changqing (1973), president of the Third Academy (China Academy of Aerospace Science and Industry Aviation Technology) under the China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC), lived in Russia for four years (2002–2006) and earned a PhD in physics and dynamic technology at the National Research University Moscow Power Engineering Institute. Wang is in charge of an academy serving China’s high-tech scientific research and aircraft vehicle production hub.
The substantial rise in educational exchanges between China and Russia
Over the past 20 years, the number of educational exchanges between China and Russia has increased significantly. 557 Russian students were studying in China in 1997. In 2007, it rose to 7,261; in 2017, it reached over 18,000 people. The two governments planned in 2016 that by 2020, there would be 100,000 students studying abroad on a bilateral basis. Before the COVID-19 pandemic of 2019, 8 percent of international students in China were Russian, placing them sixth in terms of foreign student numbers.
In 2010, China became the most significant source of international students outside the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and provided 24,226 students to Russian universities in the same year, making up 8% of all international students studying in Russia. 20% of students were from Kazakhstan, while 16% were from Uzbekistan. About three-quarters of Chinese students major in humanities and the social sciences, particularly languages, with a slightly lower percentage choosing these fields. Charts 1 and 2 depict the sharp increase in Chinese and Russian students studying abroad.
About 300 inter-school cooperation agreements involving educational programs, language instruction, and scientific research were signed between Chinese and Russian universities in 2020. By 2019, 35 Russian Cultural Centers had been created in Chinese cities, and 19 Confucius Institutes had been established in Russia by China. The Shenzhen MSU-BIT University (SMBU), supported by Presidents Xi and Putin, was founded in Shenzhen in 2016 by the city government of Shenzhen, the Beijing Institute of Technology, and Lomonosov Moscow State University. In 2017 and 2018, the institution started taking on undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral students for its master’s programmes. This combined university was created by former Shenzhen Mayor and current Heilongjiang Party Secretary Xu Qin (1961), a rising star in politics during the Xi period.
Whether expanding educational ties between China and Russia will result in an influx of elites with Russian education into the political leadership in the future remains to be seen. As demonstrated in the preceding article, returnees with Western or American training have been disproportionately well represented in the Party leadership for the time being and in the foreseeable future. Only one candidate for the next Politburo, Fujian Party Secretary Yin Li (1962), is a returnee with a Russian education. The Russian Academy of Medical Sciences awarded Yin a doctorate in public health (1988–1993). From 2002 to 2003, Yin served as a visiting scholar at the Harvard School of Public Health.
Another noteworthy fact is that some of the influential conservative opinion leaders in contemporary China have extensive backgrounds in Russia. A notable example is Hu Xijin (1960), a social media guru who served as editor-in-chief of the Chinese government-sponsored Global Times from 2005 to 2021. From 1978 until 1982, Hu was a student at the Institute of International Relations while serving in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). He worked as an instructor with the PLA’s 87153 Unit for the ensuing four years. He graduated with a master’s in Russian literature from Beijing Foreign Studies University in 1989, when he started working for People’s Daily, the Chinese Communist Party’s official mouthpiece. He was quickly sent to Moscow, where he saw the momentous breakup of the Soviet Union. Hu worked as a reporter in Yugoslavia from 1993 to 1996, documenting the Bosnian War. Hu later spent a lot of time reporting on the Iraq War in the Persian Gulf.
Hu has been regarded as the nation’s top “wolf fighter” pursuing the United States, even though he occasionally challenged or upset individuals across the political spectrum, including the Party elite. He even reposted a widely read tweet that said, “If a U.S. fighter plane escorts Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, it is an attack.” The U.S. fighter jet and Pelosi’s aircraft may be forced to be removed by the PLA. The drive could fail, and they could be shot down.
Hu’s penchant for sensationalism may not be taken seriously, but other figures in the mainstream official media may have an even more significant influence. Lü Yansong (1967), who spent many years in Russia as a People’s Daily correspondent (1991–1993) and chief correspondent (2001–2005), was recently appointed to the position.
Lü Yansong and his wife worked at the Yugoslavian Chinese embassy when NATO bombed that country. The bomb that targeted the Chinese embassy also claimed the lives of three other Chinese journalists, although Lü Yansong and his wife remained unharmed. Before taking on his current role, Lü served as the CCP’s Central Publicity Department’s deputy director. He is also a delegate to the 20th Party Congress. This October, he might be able to secure alternate membership on the new Central Committee.
Whether Chinese officials with extensive expertise in Russia reflect a trend or are just isolated examples is unknown. But a far more significant development that requires attention from those who study China is the rising number of Chinese military commanders who have had their training in Russia. The following article will focus on this.
Analysis by: Advocacy Unified Network