How China sees Russia

On a recent trip to China, I asked Chinese thinkers and researchers how do they see Europe, Russia, the Putin-Medvedev dynamic and the post-Soviet space. Virtually all were very positive about Russia. Despite a lack of trust between Beijing and Moscow, the relationship seems to be  better than almost any time in modern history – economic exchanges are booming (increased by 43% in 2010 reaching USD 55 bn), and China’s border with Russia is one of China’s most stable. But scratching a bit deeper beyond the surface the picture is unsurprisingly more mixed. And not necessarily reassuring for Russia. As a Chinese put it, the relationship is good because ‘we know that when two tigers fight, both are likely to be wounded, and we want to avoid it’. This is hardly a positive way to start a partnership.

China and the break-up of USSR

A colleague of mine and I asked the Chinese how do they see the break-up of USSR. Here is the answer we got:

‘We had a big debate about whether this is good or bad for China. Some ideological people were saying this is bad because it undermines the attractiveness of Communism. But the pragmatists were saying this is good for China. And it is true, after the break-up of USSR we have very good relations with Russia. Better than ever before.’

The untold part of the answer is of course the fact these ‘better than ever’ relations are build on a very different balance of power and a Russia that is much weaker than USSR. As I wrote previously, Chinese views on the post-Soviet space do not differ much from those in Europe or the US. They differ in style (China is more deferential to Russia), but not in substance.

It is also apparent that the stronger China got, the better its relationship with Russia became. Another Chinese also suggested that China-Russia energy relations have been ‘unlocked’ by the economic crisis, since Russia’s need for cash opened the way for the USD 25bn loan-for-oil deal with Rosneft. A Chinese professor put it in the following terms: ‘How can you have a good sleep when you sleep with a bigger man?’ That referred to USSR, but not to Russia.

Is Russia a BRIC?

We also asked the Chinese whether they consider Russia is a BRIC country. Not in a technical sense as the source of letter R in this acronym, but whether they consider Russia a rising power – economically and politically. Instead of a reply, we heard a joke:

‘A BRIC summit is discussing how and when to unseat the US dollar as a global reserve currency. After days of deliberations the leaders of BRIC countries decide to go and ask God about the prospects of their currencies to become global reserve currencies. The first to go is Dilma Rousseff, president of Brazil – she asks God when will the real become a reserve currency. A few minutes later she returns crying. Her RIC colleagues ask her ‘what happenned?’ ‘God said I will not live to see that’ she explained.

Manmohan Singh goes to ask God when will the Indian rupee become a global reserve currency. Just like Dilma Rousseff he returns crying after a few minutes. God told him that the Rupee won’t become a reserve currency in his lifetime.

Hu Jintao goes through the same experience.

Then Medvedev goes to God. A few minutes later Medvedev returns completely calm. The others ask him what happened, and Medvedev replies: ‘I asked God when will the Rouble become a global reserve currency… and God started to cry. I asked him what happened, and he told me this will not happen in his lifetime…’

(I heard a similar joke about corruption in Romania). The joke is half funny, but captures how many Chinese see Russia.

Putin or Medvedev?

Just like the US and EU almost unashamedly prefer Medvedev to Putin, the Chinese equally unashamedly seem to prefer Putin to Medvedev. We asked why. One answer was that ‘Medvedev is pro-Western, and Putin is pro-Russian’. Another Chinese regretted the times when Russia was on the frontlines of opposition to the US. As one Chinese intellectual explained: ‘It is difficult for China alone to be against the US. With other powers – we can do it. Before, when Putin was president, Russia was much more active in the UN Security Council. But after the reset US-Russia reset we have to be smarter on how to promote out views in the UN. We do not want to face US pressures on our own.’

Many of them, though, highlight that before ‘Libya’ they didn’t matter much whether it is Putin or Medvedev, but that Russia’s failure to veto the resolution over Libya and the clash between Medvedev and Putin over the issue lead them to believe Putin is ‘closer’.

- Why? – I asked.

-Because ‘Medvedev did not veto UNSC resolution 1973.’

- But China didn’t block it either? Medvedev did what China did, so why do you say Putin is closer?

- Yes that’s true, but it was better before…

It sounds almost counter-intuitive that China, which has a careful, quiet, and markedly non-aggressive diplomatic style misses Putin’s Munich-speech style rants. But then those speeches allowed China to get the best of two worlds – cooperate with the US, while also enjoying from the sidelines Russia spearheading opposition to the US.