Russia-China Relations in Times of Global Pandemic

Abhishek Mohanty

Abhishek Mohanty is a Fellow at the ERA Institute. He is currently pursuing M.A. degree at the Russian Academy of National Economy and Public Administration.

The strategic partnership flanked by Russia and China is one of the noteworthy aspects which has shaped the contemporary international relations. Their partnership has been termed as a quasi-alliance whose primary objective is to resist against any influence from western sanctions. The nearly all-weather cooperation stood against all obstacles until the outbreak of COVID-19 when fissures started appearing. However, both governments tried to normalize relations through medical diplomacy and cooperation amongst BRICS and SCO members.

The Problematic Phase

The initial cases of coronavirus in Russia were reported in the last week of January 2020, and the first two were reportedly Chinese citizens. Russia was one of the first countries to close its land borders with China, the first being Mongolia. However, this restricted the cross-border trade which was performing well at that time. Russian exports to China, especially timber and animal products dropped by nearly one-third between January-February due to low-consumer demands. Several truck drivers lost their jobs due to restrictions in economic activity.

In February, Russia had stopped issuing e-visas to Chinese citizens and enforced a temporary ban by closing all flights and passenger trains to and from China. This didn’t go well with the Chinese embassy in Russia and they responded strongly to all these measures. The embassy had released a statement addressing the Russian authorities to remove all discriminatory actions towards Chinese nationals which were hampering the bilateral relations. This was one of the rare moments when Chinese officials stood in defiance with Russia.

Until the end of March, the total number of cases in Russia didn’t exceed thousands. However, from April the cases went so high that currently, Russia is the third-leading country globally in the total number of positive cases. According to Chinese state media Xinhua, the new cases reported in China were increasingly coming from those citizens who returned from Russia. Chinese medical experts also claimed that more than 250 positive cases came from Moscow and Vladivostok, and raised doubts over testing standards in Russia.

According to another Chinese state media Global Times which relied on the information provided by the Chinese consulate in Russia’s Vladivostok, several Chinese businessmen were spreading rumors in social media and urged Chinese citizens residing in Russia to go back to their native places via Suifenhe’s port at any costs, and even encouraged to break into Chinese customs. Chinese social media users in Weibo and WeChat also displayed high degree of mistrust and resentment against Russia.

Revival in Ties

Despite all the negative hype created around their cooperation during the outbreak, Russia and China managed to bounce back together. Russian and Chinese governments worked day-and-night to take control of media narratives on Russia-China relations. In an interview with Russian newspaper Izvestia, Chinese Ambassador to Russia Zhang Hanhui said, “Russia’s assistance during the struggle of China against the COVID-19 epidemic was sincere, timely, firm and comprehensive”. Leading media outlets both in Russia and China have frequently published articles expressing support to bilateral measures in the fight against the pandemic.

The outcome of the telephonic conversation between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese president Xi Xinping was hale and hearty, and both sides agreed to increase mutual cooperation in the medical sector. Putin praised China for properly managing public health amid the pandemic, while Xinping thanked Russia for its assistance and acting as a strong partner. Later, Russian foreign ministry released a statement backing China, when the US criticized the later for its mismanagement during the pandemic. This clearly explains why China withdrew its previous objections over Russia’s treatment of its citizens.

Moving from the bilateral level, both Russia and China took their cooperation at the multilateral level also. During the virtual meeting of BRICS foreign ministers on April 28 2020, it was decided to establish a dedicated lending mechanism to sponsor economic recovery projects in the BRICS countries up to 15 billion USD through the assistance of BRICS New Development Bank, Shanghai. Few days later, during the virtual conference of foreign ministers from the members of Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov and Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi jointly condemned the bullying attitude of the US and agreed to thwart every attempt to politicize the pandemic, specifically those rhetoric of defaming a particular country.  

The Way Ahead

As seen from above, the outbreak of pandemic didn’t create major strains in the comprehensive strategic partnership between Russia and China. Major Powers have now glued their eyes on how this cooperation will evolve after the pandemic departs. Through my personal observations, I am convinced that Russia-China relations will stride in to a new epoch of mutual assistance on numerous global and regional issues. At a time when US President Trump is pushing ‘de-globalization’ and Chinese President Xinping promoting ‘globalization 2.0’ on Sinic principles, Russia has more to gain from the later.

In the post-pandemic world, there will be increase in Chinese investments in the Russian market, especially in the extraction of natural resources in the Far East region and telecommunications technology. Beijing will also initiate the development of 5G infrastructure through the controversial Huawei Technologies along its planned ‘Digital Silk Road’, which will cover much of the Post-Soviet space. These initiatives will offer stability to the fluctuating economy of Russia while China will use any means to accomplish them in order to fulfill its global ambitions.

This article is produced by the Eurasian Research and Analysis Institute, Inc. (ERA Institute), a public, 501(c)(3) nonprofit institution devoted to studying Eurasian affairs. All views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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