In light of the trade fears surrounding the United States and China, it should come as no surprise that the ties between China and Russia seem closer than ever. However, despite this reality, it is worth noting that the dynamic between the two is also burdened by a series of problematic variables, from territorial aspects to their intention of being at the very least regionally-dominant.
Speaking of regional dominance, it is interesting to observe China’s Belt and Road Initiative on the one hand and Russia promoting the formation of the EAEU (Eurasian Economic Union). On the one hand, countries gathering under these two geopolitical umbrellas share similar strategic interests in a lot of cases. However, the very existence of these two sometimes parallel geopolitical umbrellas is likely to pose problems when certain conditions surface.
Also, despite many claims about robust trade deals between the two… the numbers are just not there.
In 2018, Russia was China’s #12 trading partner, with $48 billion in trading volume, almost a perfect 10% of the $479.2 billion China – US trading volume for the same year. The same way, Japan’s numbers are three times greater than Russia’s, whereas South Korea does two times more business with China. As such, while almost $50 billion in trading volume between China and Russia are nothing to sneeze at, let’s just say that at this point there is still a major discrepancy between optimistic statements and the financial reality of the present.
However, even after factoring in the imperfect nature of the numbers behind the China – Russia trade relationship, it is clear to any outside observer that the two nations are forming closer and closer ties. Despite this reality, however, there is only so much economic potential associated with Russia-related trade deals and China is well aware of that.
As such, despite being a sometimes very vocal critic of China when it comes to issues such as respecting human rights or excessive state involvement in the economy, the European Union is a much more important trading partner to China than Russia. Even in light of the many hiccups in the relationship between the United States and China, the two economies are interconnected to a certain degree that enough companies would be devastated by dramatic developments and the cessation of said relationship to cause a global calamity with implications so dire that they are next to impossible to quantify.
From a political perspective, yes, things may seem fairly straightforward to a less than sophisticated observer: you have a clear China – US conflict on the one hand and a China – Russia friendship on the other. But conflict or not, the United States and China can literally not afford a proverbial divorce and Russia is not capable of coming anywhere near close enough in terms of the trade volume it is able to put on the table.
Therefore, belligerent declarations and warm displays of friendship alike need to be taken with a grain of salt. Why? Simply because there are quasi-axiomatic economic realities beneath the surface which give the current economic status quo ample reasons to continue… well, being the status quo. With that remark in mind, though, the economic relationship between China and Russia can be considered robust even in the absence of impressive trading volume, especially if we also factor in dimensions such as the political and military ones.