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‘No other option’: Russia’s unequal economic marriage to China

Russia has been in an unequal relationship with China since it intensified its alignment with Beijing after attacking Ukraine.

Since Western countries imposed sanctions on Moscow, bilateral trade between the two neighbors has reached a record $190 billion, and the share of Russia’s foreign trade denominated in yuan has risen from 0.5 percent to 16 percent.

“Russia’s proximity to China is absolutely crucial because Russia doesn’t have many trading friends,” Elina Ribakova, deputy chief economist at the Institute of International Finance, told AFP.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is now preparing to receive Chinese leader Xi Jinping next week.

The two last met when Putin visited Beijing three weeks before the start of his campaign in Ukraine.

Also Read: Russia, China Show Ties As They Maneuver Around Ukraine

Ties between the two countries are particularly strong in the energy sector, which has been hit hard by Western sanctions.

“China and India have overtaken the European Union as Russia’s top oil export market,” said a group of economists at the Institute of International Finance.

Along with Turkey, China and India accounted for two-thirds of Russia’s crude oil exports in the fourth quarter of last year.

“Chinese companies took over the niches vacated by Western companies leaving Russia,” said Sergey Tsyplakov, an expert at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics.

This view was shared by Anna Kireeva, a research fellow at the renowned MGIMO University in Russia.

“It was also necessary to find alternative import sources, especially in machinery, electronics, various parts and components, cars and other vehicles,” Kireeva told AFP.

However, she said most major Chinese companies, which are well-integrated with Western markets, have decided to halt operations in Russia amid fears of potential sanctions.

It remains to be seen whether the alliance of convenience will become a long-term, sustainable partnership.

“Putin wants a balanced relationship with China, like a twin brother, but that’s not the case,” analyst Timothy Ash told AFP.

“Russia has no choice” but to turn to China, he said.

Temur Umarov, a Carnegie Endowment for International Peace fellow, said Russia’s economic stability “depends on China.”

“It gives Beijing another tool, another tool to influence Russia from within,” he said.

However, the Kremlin denies any inequality.

“In Russia-China relations there is neither a leader nor a follower because both parties trust each other equally,” Russian presidential aide Yuri Ushakov told journalists.

Some logistical issues are hampering trade development between Beijing and Moscow.

The railway lines in Russia’s Far East are saturated, Kireeva said, and their modernization will take time.

Infrastructure in Far Eastern regions, including the main oil port of Kozmino in the Sea of ​​Japan, is also stretched.

In addition, Russia has had to sell its oil to China or India at cheaper prices than usual in order to maintain sales volumes.

His household is already feeling the consequences of the forced discounts.

Oil export revenue fell 42 percent year-on-year in February, the International Energy Agency said.

Having fewer partners leaves Russia in a vulnerable position compared to China, which remains a competitor, Ash said.

“Beijing has an interest in maintaining Russia as an ally independent of the West, while also wanting Russia to be weakened so that it can exploit it.”

Russia’s economic dependence on China is still in its infancy, Umarov said.

“But in years or decades, that economic lever could turn into a bigger political lever,” he added.

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