Russia and China: It’s more than just hot air

It will take more than gas to solidify mutual trust.

Sarah Longo

International relations | Asia, East Asia

30 May 2014

Sarah Longo navigates the politics of Russia and China’s energy relationship.

The recent 400 billion dollar energy deal between China and Russia is the culmination of talks that have been occurring over the past few years. Following the construction of pipelines later this year, 38bn cubic meters of gas will be supplied to the China National Petroleum Corporation from the Russian state-owned Gazprom.While the precise terms of the agreement are yet to be made public, the deal has sparked international interest about the geopolitical implications.

China and Russia have spent decades discussing this multi-billion dollar gas deal, so what brought on the sudden meeting of minds? The events in Crimea definitely accelerated the negotiations. Putin was determined to demonstrate Russia’s resilience in the face western sanctions regarding Crimea. Putin was also keen to decrease Russia’s reliance on gas exports to Europe. Such concerns provided an opportunity for China to gain the upper hand with the negotiations and probably conclude a deal more advantageous to them. Nevertheless, it is a deal that is still vital to China. In particular, to decrease its reliance on coal – which seems to be one of the main contributors to the somewhat permanent state of ‘fog’ that exists in most Chinese cities. This has also caused growing public outcry, a problem, which China will want to stamp down on quickly. So it appears there has at least been a warming of the relationship.

So how much impact will China and Russia’s newly forged relationship have on geopolitical arena? Sure, Russia and China can now bond over their newfound gas relationship, which will benefit them both economically. Arguably, they share, to a certain extent, a desire to increase their influence on the world stage without the overbearing attitudes of America. Some commentators even contend that Russia’s actions in Crimea will provide China with the confidence to develop a more aggressive naval policy in the South China Sea. This would be a particular concern given the already escalating tensions.

However, before tensions start to bubble over, cooler heads are required. How much do these two countries really have in common? The relationship is still fraught with underlying historical tensions and mistrust. China supported the United States during the 1970s and 1980s against the former Soviet Union.[1] Furthermore, China’s heavy reliance on Central Asia’s gas and natural resources has not sat well with Putin, as this area previously fell within Russia’s zone of influence. It seems that it will take more than gas to solidify mutual trust.

So maybe the hot air will get cooler.



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