Vladimir Putin’s China Visit Put His Weakness on Full Display

CAPTION CORRECTION! Russian President Putin on official visit to China
Photo by Mikhail Metzel\TASS via Getty Images

Ever since Sino-Russian ties began to warm up a few years ago, observers have been wondering how Russia would get used to its junior status in this unequal partnership.

With his fifth visit to Beijing on June 25, which lasted less than 24 hours, Russian President Vladimir Putin has finally given us some clues.

Circumstances have changed for both nations since Putin’s last visit to China two years ago. The Chinese economy has been caught in a stubborn downward spiral and Beijing has been putting out fires lately, such as a stock market crash and large-scale capital flight. Russia has fared even worse. The collapse of oil prices and Western sanctions have plunged the Russian economy into a death spiral. The ruble lost more than half of its value in the last two years. Russia’s GDP shrank 3.4% last year and is expected to contract further this year. So, China may not be doing too well, but Russia is in far worse shape.

It is thus an uncommon—but unsurprising—sight to see Putin, the swaggering strongman, perform the rituals of a clear supplicant to his senior partner, the Chinese President Xi Jinping.

To be sure, Russia has billed Putin’s visit as a huge success and touted the nearly 30 commercial deals signed between various Chinese and Russian entities as evidence of a mutually beneficial partnership. But a close examination of these deals and, more importantly, the three joint communiqués signed by Putin and Xi, reveals that it is China that is in the driver’s seat in the emerging Sino-Russian strategic partnership.

Cash-strapped Russia needs Chinese investments and has to sell technology it used to withhold from its powerful neighbor (and potential threat). Among the more notable deals signed during Putin’s visit was the purchase of a 40% stake by ChinaChem, China’s largest state-owned chemical company, in a petrochemical complex owned by Rosnef, Russia’s state-owned oil giant. Another eye-catching agreement was the sale of Russia’s advanced space rocket engine, RD-180, to China.

Putin gave away even more to please China in the language of the three Sino-Russian joint communiqués. On the surface, the three joint communiqués—one on the visit itself, one on cyberspace, and another on global strategic stability—clearly show the common interests shared by Russia and China in opposing recent American policies. For instance, in the communiqué on global strategic stability, both Putin and Xi denounced the U.S., albeit without naming it explicitly, for its intent on “deploying force or the threat of force to pursue its interests without any obstruction.” They singled out planned American deployment of anti-missile systems in Northeast Asia and Eastern Europe as harmful to Chinese and Russian national security interests. They also mentioned the proposed Global Prompt Strike, currently under development by the Pentagon, as a weapon system that will change the strategic balance and trigger a new arms race.

A close reading of the communiqués on cyberspace and the visit itself belies Putin’s junior status in his partnership with Xi.

On cyberspace, Russia, which has maintained much looser control of the internet than China, formally embraced the position long advocated by China, where the ruling Chinese Communist Party has been obsessed with the threat posed by the information revolution to its survival. According to the joint communiqué, Russia and China call for the “respect for the national sovereignty in the cyberspace … and oppose the interference of other countries’ internal affairs through the cyberspace.” This text could have been lifted from the mission statement of China’s internet censors.

Even more remarkable was Russia’s unequal trade with China on the South China Sea dispute and the conflict in Ukraine. On the South China Sea, Putin has finally embraced a key Chinese position, opposing “internationalization” of the dispute and external interference (a veiled reference to the U.S.). But what did he get in return? On Ukraine, the communiqué only stated that both China and Russia do not believe there is a military solution and any political and diplomatic solution must be based on the new Minsk ceasefire agreement signed in February 2015.

Beggars cannot be choosers, and a Putin besieged by both domestic economic woes and international isolation likely has no choice but to double-down on his bet on China. Of course, Russia’s strongman may have to kowtow to his newfound Chinese friend. But if such a gesture could gain him some extra space for survival, it is worth it, particularly when one considers his lack of alternatives.

Minxin Pei is the Tom and Margot Pritzker ’72 Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College and a non-resident senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States

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