Now that Chinese big investment projects have all but dried up, Moscow risks turning its attention away from Asia. Once again, Russia may miss the opportunity to profit from one of the world’s largest markets—and an especially important one for Russia in light of continuing Western sanctions.
There may be tensions in the Beijing-Moscow partnership, but reverse migration trends among Chinese workers prove that worries about China’s potential conquest of the Russian Far East are unfounded.
China has no port of its own on the Sea of Japan, and Russia could use this to its advantage. But for Russia to attract Chinese cargo, it is essential to simplify customs controls and seriously invest in roads and ports. Considering that both of these factors are Russia’s responsibility, the completion of the Primorye transport corridors has been stalled for a long time.
It is not enough for China and Russia to work to reduce US dominance in “the grand Eurasian chessboard.” They have to work on a new continental order that other countries, not just the two of them, would find an improvement over the current situation.
The Kremlin is still anxious about the expansion of Chinese influence in Central Asia, which is why it has turned the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, set up in order to work out widely accepted rules of the game for Eurasia, into a useless bureaucracy. Now, Beijing can develop relations with other SCO members without worrying about what Moscow thinks.
The recent Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation that took place in Beijing is China’s claim to a more prominent role in determining the rules of the game on a global stage. But in the unpredictable world of Chinese politics, the forum was as much about President Xi Jinping’s standing and an attempt to curtail speculation that he is not in total control.
In its clumsy attempt to exploit the vulnerabilities of the Sino-Russian axis, the Trump administration misunderstands not only the strength of relations, but also its own desirability as a useful ally.
It will take years for Russia to increase trade with China. To do so, Russia will need to strengthen its institutions, overcome non-tariff barriers to the Chinese market, and enhance its reputation among Chinese investors.
At the Belt Road Forum in Beijing, Vladimir Putin once again reaffirmed his personal relations with Xi Jinping without getting into economic specifics. But still, the Russian President managed to get special attention. Russia needs to be satisfied with its political gains from the forum.
The Sino-Russian swap agreement of 2014 was signed right before a major geo-political crisis and the depreciation of the Russian currency. Although the idea of an escape from the U.S. dollar in bilateral payments is quite positive, the deal could not help improve bilateral trade and investment.