Russia Becomes ‘China’s Little Brother’

The tables are turned between the two countries at Xi-Putin parley at Moscow.

Grigory Sysoyev, Sputnik, Kremlin pool via AP
Presidents Putin, right, and Xi Jinping at the Kremlin, March 21, 2023. Grigory Sysoyev, Sputnik, Kremlin pool via AP

For hundreds of years, Moscow surrounded itself with satellite nations run by obsequious rulers. From the Soviet era, think of Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, and East Germany. Now, in a tale of changing places, Russia is emerging as an economic satellite of China.

That is the dominant Western takeaway on this week’s three day visit to Moscow by China’s paramount leader, Xi Jinping. “Putin is turning Russia into, in effect, a vassal state of China,” writes a senior fellow of the Atlantic Council, Michael Shuman.

Mr. Shuman continues “Over time, as the power imbalance in the relationship continues to widen in China’s favor, Moscow will find itself less and less able to chart an independent foreign policy or deviate from alignment with Beijing’s interests.”

The glittering pomp of a Kremlin state visit cannot mask changing economic realities. In 1991, the year the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia’s economy was 25 percent bigger than China’s. Today, China, historically ‘the younger brother’ of the Sino-Soviet pair, has a $18 trillion economy — 10 times bigger than Russia’s

“The body language said it all,” Eurasia Center fellow Brian Whitmore writes. “In one joint public appearance this week, Xi confidently leaned back in his chair, relaxed, and smiled. Putin in contrast, appeared nervous and anxious as he bent forward and fidgeted…The Sino-Russian relationship is developing on Beijing’s terms and Putin has no choice but to accept that. He is now Xi’s junior partner.”

After the Chinese communist party boss flew back to Beijing, London-based financial analyst, Timothy Ash writes, “Putin just comes out as mega weak and Xi’s little Shetland pony.”

To turn the tide in Ukraine, Mr. Putin wanted a military alliance. Perhaps, he was remembering Mao Zedong’s famous ties with North Korea — “as close as lips and teeth.” Instead, Putin is getting an economic dependency where Russia becomes China’s main resource colony.

This year, Russia is displacing Saudi Arabia as China’s top source of imported oil. Russia is displacing Australia as China’s top source of coal. Russia is displacing Qatar and Turkmenistan as China’s top source of natural gas. By the end of this year, Russia’s main trade currency will be China’s renminbi.

China is driving hard bargains, getting resources on the cheap. Having lost Europe as its top energy market, Russia finds it has lost bargaining leverage with China. As a result, Russia is selling oil at prices that barely cover production and transportation costs. By value, China accounts for 30 percent of Russia’s total foreign trade. But Russia only accounts for three percent of China’s global trade.

“The most profound outcome of Putin’s war will be the massive redistribution of wealth from Russia to China and India, or ‘Chindia,’” predicts Diane Francis. Citing price caps imposed by the West in December, she writes: “Both Asian giants import increasing amounts of energy at deep discounts because of newly imposed oil price caps. Estimates are that Moscow’s oil revenues alone are down $200 million a day.”

In advance, Mr. Putin said he would help Chinese companies replace Western ones that pulled out of Russia due to sanctions. Mr. Putin also announced that a $400 billion deal to build an 1,865-mile Power of Siberia 2 pipeline would allow Russia to export almost 100 billion cubic meters of gas a year to China by 2030.

Last week, though, Mr. Xi sidestepped committing to the pipeline. Mr. Ash writes: “The Chinese are nervous about signing the deal which in effect would screw Europe, and I think force Europe more closely into the US camp.”

Mr. Xi also sidestepped sending military aid to Russia, probably out of fear of alienating the EU, a group of nations alarmed by Mr. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. After Southeast Asia, the EU is Communist China’s second-largest trading partner.

Last year, about one third of China’s $878 billion world trade surplus was with the EU. Last year 16,000 Chinese freight trains traveled west through Poland, which, as a frontline supporter of Ukraine, could easily have stopped these trains.

For Mr. Xi, it may have been enough to visit Moscow and give moral support. He publicly addressed Mr. Putin as “dear friend” only a few days after an indictment for war crimes was handed up against the Russian leader at the International Criminal Court. 

Russia’s isolation was on clear display during Mr. Xi’s visit. While the Chinese leader was in Moscow, Prime Minister Kishida was 500 miles away at Kyiv, touring a Russian massacre site and meeting with President Zelenskyy.

At the same time, the International Monetary Fund announced a $15.6 billion loan deal for Ukraine, and the EU announced a $1 billion plan to ship 1 million 155 mm artillery shells to Ukraine this year.

At the summit, the two leaders agreed to rule out allowing the Ukraine war to go nuclear. It is unclear, though, whether Mr. Xi will follow up on earlier hints that he would telephone Mr. Zelenskyy to promote a ceasefire.

While China likes to do business with a weakened Russian president, it does not want to see him lose the war and lose power. Mr. Xi speaks often about American-led attempts to “encircle” the Middle Kingdom. China and Russia share what is, at 2,615.5, miles, one of the world’s largest land borders.

Remembering that while the two-headed Russian eagle looks both East and West, Mr. Xi does not want a pro-Western leader to succeed the 70-year-old Mr. Putin. Perhaps hedging his bets, the Chinese leader broke protocol, met with Prime Minister Mishushtin, and invited him to Beijing. In the paranoid world of Mr. Putin’s Kremlin, Mr. Xi’s public embrace of Mr. Mishushtin presumably will not prove to be a kiss of death.

For now, Mr. Xi is using Mr. Putin’s Ukraine debacle to strengthen his hold on Russia. A Fulbright scholar in Australian-United States Alliance Studies, Philipp Ivanov, contrasts the Xi-Putin relationship with the Sino Soviet relationship in the 1950s. 

“With the roles reversed in 2023, China is marching across the globe, and its more dependent younger brother is shuffling behind,” he writes in a Foreign Policy essay titled: “Can Russia Get Used to Being China’s Little Brother?”

The New York Sun

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