China may find itself odd man out
Ten years ago, China and Russia signed a Treaty of Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation. At the time, bilateral trade reached $10 billion.
Last year it reached $60 billion and the expectation is that it will rise to $100 billion by 2015.
The two countries have also solved their border dispute and now boast that they have developed a partnership of strategic coordination.
Their relationship has certainly strengthened since 2001. Moreover, in the last decade, Russia has been transformed from a diversified trading partner into a provider of energy and raw materials to fuel China’s growth.
In 2001, Russian-made electronics and machinery accounted for 28.8 percent of the country’s exports to China. By 2005 they made up only 2.2 percent.
Whereas China’s trade is increasingly like that of a developed economy, Russia’s trade resembles that of a developing country, exporting raw materials. Moreover, Russia is increasingly dependent on China.
In 2000, China ranked sixth among Russia’s trading partners. In 2008, China emerged as Russia’s third-largest trading partner.
Last year, China became Russia’s top trading partner. Russia, meanwhile, is only in eighth place where China is concerned.
This reflects the fact that China has steadily increased its trading role and is now second only to the United States as a trading power.
Sino-Russian trade will continue to grow as China increases energy purchases from Russia. A pipeline to bring Siberian crude oil to China opened in January, under which Beijing is to receive 15 million metric tons of oil a year for 20 years. It helps both countries.
The project provides China with oil that is not dependent on shipping lanes vulnerable to piracy while providing Russia with an alternative to Europe as a customer for its oil.
However, almost immediately, there was a major dispute on pricing. The dispute was only resolved after a visit to Moscow by Vice Premier Wang Qishan.
The Chinese and Russians are now talking about the construction of two pipelines to carry natural gas to China. The plan is for a 30-year deal for Russia to provide 68 billion cubic meters of gas a year to China.
While pricing questions can be resolved through give and take, other issues have emerged that cast a shadow over the “strategic partnership.”
In early May, the foreign ministers of the two countries agreed to step up cooperation and improve coordination on regional and international issues.
However, when President Dmitry Medvedev was in Deauville, France for the 8G meeting three weeks later, he signed a declaration calling on Colonel Moammar Gadhafi of Libya to give up power.
This was a shock to the Chinese, who evidently had not been consulted by the Russians. President Medvedev also announced that he was sending his special representative for Africa, Mikhail Margelov, to Benghazi to meet with leaders of the opposition National Transitional Council, evidently positioning Russia as a mediator on the issue.
China’s shock at the Russian move was reflected in the way Xinhua, the official press agency, reported the news. Over the headline “Russia joins West over Libya for interests,” the article said analysts believe “Russia made the move to protect its own interests in Libya and have a stake in the country’s future.”
The Medvedev move left China exposed as the only permanent member of the United Nations Security Council not to have cultivated the Libyan opposition in Benghazi.
Of course, China also wants to protect its interests. But, evidently, it had decided that its interests lay with those of the Gadhafi regime.
For this, it has been criticized. For example, the chief correspondent of Al-Jazeera Arabic in Beijing, Ezzar Shahrour, has accused the Chinese state media of siding with Tripoli against the rebels.
Beijing had to make quick recalculations after the Medvedev move. The following week, it announced that the Chinese ambassador to Qatar, Zhang Zhiliang, had met in Doha with the head of Libya's Transitional National Council, Mustafa Abdel Jalil. The Chinese foreign ministry said the men "exchanged views on the Libyan situation," without giving any details.
If the Libyan issue returns to the Security Council, the West should have a much easier time now that Russia has joined them. China, unless it readjusts its policy, may find itself the odd man out.
No doubt, when the leaders of China and Russia meet to celebrate the 10th anniversary of their friendship treaty, they will again pledge to strengthen their “strategic partnership.”
But, as recent events have made clear, each is likely to put its own interests ahead of those of the partnership.
Frank Ching is a journalist and commentator based in Hong Kong. The writer can be reached at Frank.firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @FrankChing1.