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.
Russian companies are optimistic that the sale of cheap grain and high-quality sweets will help create a climate of “comprehensive strategic cooperation” with China. However, they face completion in the Chinese market from more familiar food brands from the U.S., Australia and New Zealand.
Sino-Russian relations do not constitute a new axis of like-minded authoritarian regimes that want to challenge the West by default. But it’s an example of how tactical and opportunistic cooperation of non-Western powers seeking to boost their influence on the international stage comes at expense of the Western-led international order.
State-sector reform is crucial for the long-term prospects of the Chinese economy, but it remains unclear how Russia's experience in dealing with the state sector could be of any use to Beijing.
Both China and Russia are led by leaders acting out of the national interest, which should mean that even if President Xi or President Putin will not be able to resolve their differences with President Trump, they will at least speak the same language.