RD Exclusive: Richard Weitz discusses the geopolitical implications of the new round of partnership initiatives between Russia and China.


China's President Xi Jinping (right) gestures to his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin during a welcoming ceremony at the Xijiao State Guesthouse in Shanghai on May 20, 2014. Photo: Reuters

After Russia and China signed a number of agreements as a result of President Putin’s visit to China last week, Russia Direct discussed the implications of this visit with Richard Weitz, senior fellow and director at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Political-Military Analysis, who is currently working on a book about China-Russia-U.S. trilateral relations. 

Russia Direct: The energy deal between Russia’s largest energy company, Gazprom, and the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) met with both skepticism and optimism. While some pundits regard it as a failure, others see the deal as a success. What is your opinion?

Richard Weitz: Putin needs something to compensate for the Western [sanctions], so I see it as a success, though it was long expected; people thought it would occur a while ago, because [China and Russia] are natural energy partners.

Although wary about how Russia exploits its energy exports in the case of Ukraine and other European countries, Chinese energy managers still want to obtain some Russian oil and gas.

Yet, despite their sometimes lofty rhetoric, Chinese leaders hold modest expectations regarding the substantive benefits from cooperating with Moscow. China’s energy managers want to obtain more Russian oil and gas but strive to limit their dependence on any single external energy source.

RD: Putin’s visit resulted in about 40 agreements signed with China, with Beijing investing in many projects in Russia. Do you think China will be able to shoulder the loss of Western investment?

R.W.: The Chinese can provide capital to Russia, which is important and that could help. But they don’t have everything Russia needs from the West, particularly, the some high technology products. I think you need BP, Chevron or some other major oil energy companies to fully develop the northern Siberian or Arctic fields, and the Chinese don’t have all that technology.

RD: Can we say that Putin’s recent visit to China is the start of a new world order?

R.W.: No. Although Russia and China could use their currency more directly with each other and increase their other collaboration, a world transformation would require establishing some alternatives to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other global institutions, which is not really occurring.

RD: What about territorial disputes between China and Russia? Can China use this leverage in the future to promote its political and geopolitical agenda – I mean the interdependent economic and political ties with Russia that put Moscow in a more vulnerable position?

R.W.: I’ve not seen that anybody influential in China has raised these territorial issues since they signed the agreements. The Chinese may want their territory back but  that is not something they are currently focusing on. They are really now worrying about Japan, the Philippines [in their territorial claims in South China and East China seas]. So, I’ve not known any Chinese plans to take their territories back. And, moreover, Russia will let the Chinese invest in these regions. So, why do they need to control it? 

RD: What do you think about some forecasts from U.S. pundits that Russia-China closer collaboration might bring trouble for the U.S. and affect its position in the Eurasian region?

R.W.: It’s happening anyway, because the U.S. influence in Eurasia is falling. I don’t think that the Russian-Chinese [partnership] is the main drive. It’s just lack of American interest. In fact, there is some wishful thinking in the U.S. that Russia wanted to keep the US involved in Eurasia to balance China’s growth. But we have not seen that either.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin before meeting with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping in Shanghai. Photo: Reuters

RD: Ok, what side effect can China-Russia collaboration result in for Russia? After all, some skeptics warn Russia against establishing closer ties with China because China, in the end, might pressure Russia to promote its own geopolitical agenda in the South China Sea where it has territorial claims. Can China really pressure Russia?

R.W.: It could. For example, they could say: “We don’t want you to sell arms to Vietnam”, or “We don’t want you to do an arms deal with Indonesia”. They may be already doing do. But Russia has to look at the whole picture – what would Russians gain from moving closer to China and what would they lose. So far, you’ve seen the relations becoming better, ], with Russia realizing important gains.     

Chinese policy makers would like Russia’s support in managing their territorial disputes with other Asian countries, but Moscow has carefully balanced sustaining good ties with China with parallel outreach efforts regarding Japan, India, Vietnam, and other Asian countries—something that would concern China more if its leaders actually saw Moscow as a close regional security partner, which is not presently the case.

RD: Some international observers claim that China is a very utilitarian and pragmatic country which implies that Beijing is very difficult to deal with, although it signs agreements, it is very difficult to make it comply with these agreements.

R.W.: Yes, we’ve seen it a lot, for example, in climate change or intellectual property policies. The central government signed agreements, but could not follow through for whatever reasons, and make all local government and industries comply. So, they don’t follow it.

RD: Perhaps such weak compliance with signed agreements might be the case regarding recent agreements between Russia and China, including the deal between Gazprom and China National Petroleum Corporation?

R.W.: I am not sure, because it is a deal directly between energy companies. They will be more likely to carry it out than if their governments had signed something and then tried to make them comply.