Reports | 04 October 2011

China's energy and security relations with Russia: hopes, frustrations and uncertainties

China’s position vis-à-vis Russia has changed from one of junior partner during the Soviet era to one of economic dominance today. At the same time, arms sales and energy cooperation, the two fundamental pillars of the China-Russia relationship, show signs of crumbling. The SIPRI policy paper, written by East Asia Program Director Linda Jakobson and her former SIPRI colleagues Paul Holtom, Dean Knox and Jingchao Peng, reassesses the China-Russia relationship.

  • Linda Jakobson

China’s position vis-à-vis Russia has changed from one of junior partner during the Soviet era to one of economic dominance today. At the same time, arms sales and energy cooperation, the two fundamental pillars of the China-Russia relationship, show signs of crumbling. The SIPRI policy paper, written by East Asia Program Director Linda Jakobson and her former SIPRI colleagues Paul Holtom, Dean Knox and Jingchao Peng, reassesses the China-Russia relationship.

  • Linda Jakobson
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Key Findings

  • Despite the emphasis of a close ‘strategic partnership’ by Chinese and Russian leaders, there are serious challenges to genuinely cooperative Sino-Russian ties.
  • China’s efforts to diversify energy supplies have borne fruit, giving China the upper hand in its energy relationship with Russia
  • While arms sales and energy cooperation will undoubtedly remain important elements of the partnership, both are likely to decrease in importance in China-Russia relations

Executive Summary

Top leaders in China and Russia routinely describe relations between the two countries as ‘the best in history’. Yet centuries of antagonism have bred a deep-rooted mistrust that continues to hamper closer ties. Beijing’s relations with Moscow in the early years of the People’s Republic were close, but China was undeniably the junior partner. Today, Chinese analysts refer to ‘normal state-to-state relations . . . between friendly neighbours’ based on equality, mutual benefit and mutual respect—although they are aware that some in Moscow are concerned that the balance is tipping in China’s favour. Despite a number of mutual interests, including preserving stability in their respective ‘near abroad’, sharing an aversion to a US-led unipolar world, and defending the principle of non-interference, Chinese analysts describe Sino-Russian relations as warm at the governmental level but cold at the grass roots level. A fundamental problem in the relationship, in the eyes of Chinese analysts, is a divergence in Chinese and Russian world views.

Security and energy cooperation have been pivotal to the China-Russia relationship. But Russia’s arms sales to China have plummeted. China has not placed a significant order since 2005. In the energy sphere, even if Russia fulfills its present obligations to annually provide 15 million tonnes of oil through the ESPO (Eastern Siberian-Pacific Ocean) pipeline, it will remain a minor oil supplier because of China’s intense efforts to diversify supply. In the coming years, while relations will remain close at the diplomatic level, the two cornerstones of the partnership over the past two decades – security and energy cooperation – will continue to crumble. As a result, Russia’s significance to China will diminish.