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MERICS Guest Author Marcin Kaczmarski

The closer cooperation between China and Russia is unlikely to turn into a threat to the EU. Even with growing exports to China, Russia will still need the EU as a market for its oil and gas. China on the other hand, benefits from access to the European market and does not share Russia’s political goal to derail the European project.

Why closer Russia-China cooperation is not a threat to Europe

Russia has reinforced its ties with China over the last decade. The conflict with the West over Ukraine reaffirmed the Kremlin’s belief that closer cooperation with China was the right strategic choice. Russia has attempted to play the “China card” in its relations to Europe, but so far to little avail.

The energy sector looked most promising. Moscow repeatedly (for the first time in 2006) threatened to reroute its gas exports from Europe to China in an attempt to secure better deals with its European customers. However, Russian gas exports to China have so far been limited to small amounts of LNG. The Power of Siberia gas pipeline, currently under construction, is going to be supplied from gas fields that are not used for export to Europe. The Altai gas pipeline, which would have to rely on the western Siberian gas fields that are used to supply Europe, remains unfeasible, even though both countries still refer to it in their joint communications. Russia’s energy policy is a bluff that the EU can easily call.

The situation in the security realm is a bit different. China’s participation in the joint naval exercises with Russia in the Baltic Sea (2017) was an undeniable, even though symbolic, success for Moscow. Beijing legitimized aggressive behavior of Russian air and naval forces in the region. In no case does this, however, mean that China would join Russia in the latter’s attempts to use force against European states.

Europe is a key economic partner for China

In their political relations with the European Union, Russia and China have in common that they both prefer to deal with individual European states rather than with the EU as a whole. Russia’s and China’s attitudes and expectations towards the EU, however, differ significantly. Beijing draws numerous benefits from the access to and ties with the EU. Unlike Russia, China is not interested in derailing the European project.

The Kremlin sees the European project as in decline and willingly cooperates with anti-EU political and societal forces throughout Europe. The Russian elite does not hide its disdain for the EU and its underpinning ideas. China, in turn, regards the EU as a key economic partner, the source of technologies and the destination of its investments. The EU’s relevance for China has only increased since the beginning of the Sino-American trade war. Russia is not able to replace Europe’s economic relevance for China, which consists of providing cutting-edge technologies, a place to invest or a market for Chinese goods. Consequently, Beijing remains interested in the success of the European project. It would be difficult for Russia and China to agree on joint policy that would undermine the EU.

Moreover, China has no interest in worsening relations between Russia and the EU. Functioning Russian-European relations are relevant for the development of China’s flagship foreign policy project, the Belt and Road Initiative. The transit corridors through Russia and Central and Eastern Europe offer the cheapest and fastest way for China to reach Western European markets. As the Russian-Western conflict over Ukraine demonstrated, instability narrows down Beijing’s options and slows down the implementation of the BRI. The railway connection through Ukraine was frozen because of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, and Chinese plans to construct of a deep-sea port in Crimea had to be cancelled following the annexation by Russia.

Under such circumstances, Europe might even expect China to be a stabilizing force vis-à-vis Russia. The growing asymmetry between China and Russia may turn out conducive to Europe’s interests in the long-term.

China and Russia support non-democratic forces

While close cooperation between Russia and China has limited direct implications for Europe, it still may impact the EU indirectly. Sino-Russian cooperation can harm Europe’s interests in the liberal international order. Moscow and Beijing are eager to support non-democratic regimes. Vladimir Putin is ready to take risks and sees its modernized military as a way to conduct “gunboat diplomacy.” Xi Jinping prefers the “checkbook diplomacy.” Beijing is propping up non-democratic regimes with financial aid, and by encouraging Chinese companies to look for opportunities in the developing world.

The problem for the EU is that it cannot match either. As the case of the Syrian civil war illustrated, it is difficult European democracies to push back against the Putin-backed regime because they have to consider civilian casualties. And unlike China, EU states cannot and do not want to offer money with no strings attached to the developing world.

This authoritarian challenge should worry Western leaders. But, at least for now, Europe needs not fear Sino-Russian collaboration directed against its security and economic interests. As long as China benefits from a unified Europe, it will not join Moscow in undermining European unity.

Marcin Kaczmarski is an expert on Russia-China relations and a lecturer at the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Glasgow. The author is solely responsible for the content of this article. He can be reached at marcin.kaczmarski@glasgow.ac.uk.