A closed-door roundtable discussion titled “China, Russia, and a New Cold War?” was held on June 20 at the International Centre for Defence and Security (ICDS), to discuss the depth and reach of the Sino-Russian partnership in light of Russia’s war in Ukraine. The participants were Dr Matthew D. Johnson and James Sherr OBE. Dr Johnson and Mr Sherr’s presentations were then analysed and commented on by Dr Ivo Juurvee and Mr Frank Jüris.
China’s win-win strategy is on full display in light of Russia’s war in Ukraine; the conflict has focused on the West’s attention on Ukraine and Russia’s simultaneous dependence on China has grown as Western sanctions take a toll on Russia’s economy.
The China-Russia relationship can be described as a strategic alignment, but not a strategic alliance as both countries have conflicting interests in Central Asia and increasingly distrust each other (recently two spies working for China were arrested in Russia). Yet, their over-arching aim on the international stage is still confronting the West and it is more efficient if they present a united front. Russia’s aggressive and hostile talking points fit the Chinese narrative of showing the West, and especially the United States, in a bad light. Russian propaganda is amplified by the Chinese media as most Russian outlets have been banned by Western countries leaving Chinese networks as the sole option to share the content.
Further, Russia is inclined to become the resource supply area for China. A kilometer-long bridge over the Amur (Heilongjiang) river connecting the east Russian city of Blagoveshchensk with the Chinese city of Heihe was opened recently. The bridge will give China easier access to Russia’s Far East and increase its influence over the local economy there. Another notable development of deepening reliance and economic ties is Russian’s current status as China’s largest supplier of oil. This also gives the Chinese a stronger hand at the negotiating table with Russia and they can get better deals when buying Russian oil, gas, or other resources than Europeans normally would.
All these factors can give the Chinese economy a strong boost. Chinese leadership is very much concerned with securing its resource supply; China is also heavily focused on rare earth minerals which Estonia has significant knowledge of. Estonian threat assessments have thus become very important and these must be conducted every time strategically important companies and infrastructure, including digital infrastructure, objects come under Chinese control.
Dr Johnson is an expert on the politics of China’s elites, strategic thinking, propaganda, and influence. His research on China’s infrastructure ambitions in the Baltic region is supported by the Estonian Foreign Policy Institute at the ICDS and the US Department of State Fulbright Specialist Program.
Mr Sherr, Senior Fellow at the Estonian Foreign Policy Institute at the ICDS has for over 25 years, been regularly consulted by Western governments on the foreign, defence and security policies of the Russian Federation, and since 1995 has had an active advisory role in Ukraine, working closely with the defence and security establishment.
Read also about the Fulbright Program and EFPI and Tallinn University co-operation: