Why Russia and China are united by more than pipeline politics

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

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The recent multi-billion euro deal to pipe gas from Russia to China signals shifting geopolitical and climate hedge bets more than it does a new anti-Western alliance, argues Shaun Breslin

Shaun Breslin is a professor of politics and international affairs at the University of Warwick

Despite the recent focus on China’s attempts to obtain overseas oil resources to fuel its continued growth, burning coal – either directly or to produce electricity – remains by far the biggest source of Chinese energy. Of course, burning so much coal is a major source of Chinese CO2 emissions, and has contributed to the “airpocalypse” in Beijing and elsewhere that have elevated pollution to the top of lists of popular concerns. As part of what Premier Li Keqiang called a “war on pollution”, there has been a renewed focus on finding replacements for coal; and the deal with Gazprom to build a pipeline to provide cleaner gas in a thirty year project clearly forms part of this environmental agenda.

But there is more to this deal than just energy and economics. Politics and international relations played their parts too. We might never know the exact details of the final deal and how the negotiations came to a conclusion, as the specifics are commercially and politically sensitive. But we have enough evidence from the prior negotiations to know that both sides were trying to get the best deal for themselves, and that the negotiations represented a trade-off between competing economic interests and objectives. This was not a fraternal gift from one side to the other, but an important commercial deal for both sides.

Nevertheless, the political context of the agreement was never far from the surface. It was no accident that the signing was at the end of an official state visit in a ceremony overseen by Putin and Xi Jinping, rather than a commercial deal signed in private by the two companies. It was a very public sign of two men, and two countries, that could do business together. At a time when both countries are facing considerable criticism over their territorial claims in Ukraine and the South China Sea, it can also be seen as a sign of solidarity and mutual support between the two.

Here we have two powers – it seems pointless to still qualify the word power with “emerging” – that share a rejection of supposedly universal values and norms that they argue are rather the result of purely western, liberal values promoted to serve western interests. And two powers that share a concern that others might be trying to rally alliances to prevent their further rise. Surely it is no surprise that the day after the deal was sealed, the People’s Daily carried two related articles.

The first, by the Chinese Ambassador to Moscow, was on how the Chinese Dream and the Russian Dream shared common features in a shared commitment to building independent development strategies that were based on their own national conditions. Left unwritten but implicit was the implication that they won’t just fall into line with the neoliberal prescriptions associated with the Washington Consensus.

The second condemned US diplomacy and its failure to understand how determined Russia was to defend its national interests. The unwritten message here was that the US shouldn’t underestimate China’s resolve to defend its national interests either.

From the Chinese side, this is not a case of turning its back on the West. This would be foolish given the continued importance of the Western economies for China’s own economic fortunes. And even if the global power of the US might have been somewhat reduced, “reduced” and “eliminated” are not the same things. There is a recognition in China first that the US will remain the pre-eminent global power for some time to come, and second, that the Sino-US relationship is going to be a key determinant of global politics in the years to come. Hence the attempt in China to develop what they call a “new model” of Great Power relations with the US.

At the same time, China is seeking to supplement relations with the still important West with a network of relations with other, non-western states. This strategy is built on an understanding of the changing nature of authority in the global order, and the way in which alliances can be built to ensure the emergence of a preferred multipolar structure; if not a structure dominated by China, then at least a structure that the US and the West cannot easily manipulate and control themselves. To this end bilateral relations with countries like Russia, and multilateral cooperation through the BRICS, the FOCAC and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, is a way of building alliances with likeminded states. This does not necessarily mean that these states share a vision of what the world should look – they don’t have a shared alternative vision of a new world order for example.

But what they do share is a collective dissatisfaction with the existing US Western liberal dominated system – be that the distribution of power within existing structures or the norms and principles that underpin them or both. These are what we might call “alliances of the dissatisfied” designed to allow for a collective annunciation of this dissatisfaction, and to demonstrate to the West that the future world order is not just of the West’s own making; and of course, in this case, that Russia and China are not so isolated when it comes to regional security issues than might appear at first sight.

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