China and the Eurasian Customs Union (EACU) / Eurasian Economic Union (EEU): From Rhetoric to Substance?


Before reading this article, we would recommend heading over to our post about the economic relationship between Russia and China, a post you can read by clicking HERE. Without reiterating what was already stated in the post in question, an important statement needs to be internalized so as to understand the true nature of the relationship between China and the Eurasian Economic Union: the fact that there is a world of difference between the “glorious” headlines which tout a smooth and prolific 70-year relationship between the two entities (which started back on the 14th of February 1950, with the signing of the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance and Mutual Assistance) and the more pragmatic “real-world” relationship between the USSR and the People’s Republic of China initially as well as Russia and the People’s Republic of China nowadays.

These relations may have started on a Valentine’s Day but realistically speaking, it would be an ignorant over-simplification to try and paint a picture of a love story between the two. On the contrary, significant tensions have existed right from the beginning, whether we are referring to the fact that Mao Zedong was anything but a fan of Nikita Khrushchev’s more toned down approach compared to Stalin, the instances in which geopolitical interests diverged and even situations which facilitated the establishment of meaningful China – United States relations (with Richard Nixon’s 1972 Beijing visit being relevant to that effect).





Geopolitics 101, if you will, and the same principle is valid in the present.

And moving on to the present, it is important to understand that there is a significant national pride dimension that needs to be addressed when it comes to both China and Russia. As far as China is concerned, despite the fact that it continuously “brands” itself as a non-interventionist power, it has become abundantly clear that it is interested in essentially buying its way toward geopolitical influence, with projects such as the Belt and Road Initiative and the AIIB making that crystal-clear. At the end of the day, it is a somewhat natural progression, from economic performance to the desire to be taken (more) seriously (geo)politically as well.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Eurasian Economic Union (which came in 2015, after the Eurasian Customs Union, and represents an important component in the rocky journey of trying to regain USSR-level influence… an effort which can be considered pale at best at this point in time) can be considered Vladimir Putin’s dream of putting an “alternative” to the European Union on the table. Of course, if we are to compare the economic might of the two entities, one cannot help but smile. The European Union, if it were to be treated as a single entity, has a combined GDP that puts it on position #1 worldwide (higher than that of the United States), whereas the Eurasian Economic Union is… well, let’s just say light years away. As such, the goal of “countering” the EU can and should be considered symbolic at best.

As can be deduced from the two parallels, both China and Russia want to be taken increasingly seriously on the international scene.

However, there is a difference between wanting something and actually possessing the means to achieve your goal.

While China most definitely has economics working in its favor, the same cannot be said by Russia in light of the fact that its geopolitical ambitions are kept in check by a GDP barely above that of Spain and lower than that of Italy. While a valid case could be made that Russia possesses enough military (nuclear) arsenal to demand to be taken seriously militarily, the same cannot be said about the economic dimension.

Where does this leave the relationship between China and the Eurasian Economic Union?

Simply put, in the absence of meaningful cooperation with China, the entire idea of the Eurasian Economic Union risks becoming a joke. To put it differently, the Eurasian Economic Union needs a solid relationship with China to give it economic legitimacy.

Is the same principle valid the other way around?


Therein lies the nuance which needs to be internalized so as to see beneath the surface.

In terms of public statements, China most definitely supports the Eurasian Economic Union and the same way, Russia declares itself equally supportive of the Belt and Road Initiative as well as other China-related projects. Furthermore, there is “paperwork” behind the various supportive statements that have been made, with the Economic Trade and Cooperation Agreement being signed in Astana between China and Eurasian Economic Union nations on the 17th of May 2018 representing the first such agreement between China and the Eurasian Economic Union. The same way, Vladimir Putin has publicly stated his support for China’s Belt and Road Initiative a year earlier and the list could go on and on.

Again, however, “nuance” is the operative word.

To put it differently, Russia “needs” China more than China needs Russia. For example, while 16% of Russia’s foreign trade is conducted with China at this point in time, the same principle is not valid the other way around. Or, should you prefer the term “leverage” instead, that would also be more than adequate.

Does China aggressively use said leverage?

Not really.


For the simple reason that at this point in time, the geopolitical interests of the two entities align frequently enough to China not to consider it necessary to try and curb Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union ambitions in a meaningful manner. On the contrary, in light of the fact that Russia and China oftentimes find themselves acting as geopolitical allies (even if allies of last resort, in some cases), China is actually interested in the opposite, in enabling Russia to project economic strength as well… within reason.

As such, the answer to the question that constitutes the title of this article can only be nuanced.

Rhetoric or substance?

Neither exclusively but rather a carefully weighted balance between the two.

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