It’s the stuff of Western nightmares: imagine if, one day, a strong China and a weak but assertive Russia “gang up” against the United States and Europe, winning more friends and allies and imposing their writ on the rest of the world?
The recent high profile meetings between Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and Russian President Vladimir Putin have been watched carefully — and fretfully — in all Western capitals with uneasy policymakers seeking to understand if this is just a passing show of affection or if the two countries are planning to build a more solid partnership.
Beijing has made clear that it has no intention of being part of any geopolitical power play being hatched by Moscow. China’s interests are global. Indeed before he met Putin, Li was in Germany striking two billion euro worth of business deals. He then headed to Italy for more headline-grabbing commercial overtures.
Beijing’s standard line is that it has no allies, only friends. That’s not how Russia views the world. Russia in contrast is under Western sanctions. The EU is struggling to reduce its dependence on Russian oil and gas while the Nato military alliance talks menacingly about Russian actions in Ukraine and its annexation of Crimea.
Some warn it is the beginning of a second Cold War. Clearly, it isn’t. The multipolar world today is a very different place from what it was in the Cold War years.
Still, some thing is afoot. The Russians are working overtime to woo the Chinese. Beijing is clearly interested in accessing more Russian oil and gas, providing Moscow with new markets as Europe diversifies away from Russian energy. Some 50 agreements and memorandums of understanding are reported to be signed during Li’s visit to Moscow, including in areas related to high-speed transit and finance. China is also eager to supply Russia with fruit and vegetables, products that Moscow is no longer importing from Europe.
Western attention is focused on Russian-Chinese cooperation within the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation which some in the West view as a potential competitor for Nato. And the recent decision to launch the BRICS bank is seen as a joint challenge by Russia and China to the post-war liberal order and the supremacy of the Bretton Woods institutions.
Both China and Russia are often on the same side on tackling global flashpoints, eschewing military intervention unless sanctioned by the United Nations Security Council.
There’s no doubt, however, that while it may want to stay friends and do business with Moscow, China has no interest in being seen as Russia’s best friend. As friendships go, in fact, the focus in many envious Western capitals is on the ‘special relationship’ between China and Germany.
While in Berlin, Li and German Chancellor Angela Merkel signed deals worth approximately US$18.1 billion, covering cooperation in areas including agriculture, automotive, telecom, healthcare and education.
Li requested that Germany help to relax the EU’s high-tech export restrictions to China and continue expanding bilateral trade and investment. He further stated that the two countries should continue working together on feasibility studies concerning the proposed China-EU Free Trade Agreement. The two sides also signed guidelines covering 110 cooperative agreements over the next five to 10 years.
At the Hamburg Summit organised by Germany’s top industrialists that was attended by Premier Li the message was clear: China is not only the the biggest market for German companies, it is also a growing one. China’s huge national reform programme agenda, opens up exciting new export and investment opportunities for German — and other European — companies. Discussions focused on China’s massive urbanisation needs which can be met by European companies.
Chinese investments into Germany and the EU are soaring. Significantly, unlike many other countries, China has shown a strong interest in the future course of Asem, the Asia Europe Meeting forum which is often criticised for being a mere talk shop.
At the Asem summit in Milan last week, Li waxed lyrical about Asem’s role in improving connectivity between Asia and Europe, underlining his vision of building a Silk Road between Asia.
Li knows he is on a winning streak. As the Financial Times newspaper reported recently, Chinese investors are surging into the EU.
In 2010, the total stock of Chinese direct investment in the EU was just over 6.1bn euro — less than what was held by India, Iceland or Nigeria. By the end of 2012, Chinese investment stock had quadrupled, to nearly 27bn euro, according to figures compiled by Deutsche Bank.
Not surprisingly, the EU and China are in the process of negotiating a bilateral investment treaty aimed at protecting each others’ investments but also ensuring better marker access.
China is clearly not about to ditch Russia. But Beijing’s focus is on the growing markets of Europe. Western policymakers can sleep easy. For many nights.