Moscow and Beijing team up on the Middle East and South-East Asia

Both parties in awkward alliance see mutual benefits and aim to make inroads in areas the US once took for granted

Both parties in awkward alliance see mutual benefits and aim to make inroads in areas the US once took for granted.
Eduardo Ramon
Both parties in awkward alliance see mutual benefits and aim to make inroads in areas the US once took for granted.

Moscow and Beijing team up on the Middle East and South-East Asia

To understand Russia’s relationship with China and how it views the China-US rivalry in relation to Saudi Arabia, it is worth identifying and connecting several different topics, some of which appear unrelated or even contradictory. There is no room for sophistry.

Since February 2022, the system of Russian power has been turned upside down. A year after the invasion of Ukraine, the Kremlin still maintains a stable position in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). The region reacted largely with restraint to the large-scale military conflict in central Europe, did not support sanctions against Russia, and did not sever ties with it.

The working assumption of Russian diplomats is that the Arab world respects force and understands Vladimir Putin’s wider struggle with the West. This viewpoint is surmised from recent off-stage conversations with Arab decision-makers, even though back in 2015 that viewpoint may not have accurately reflected Arab sentiment.

The effect of war

A great many states in the Mena region have remained silent about the course of war in Ukraine, in particular the lack of a swift Russian victory or even clear progress, and the effect of this perceived faltering on Russian foreign policy. Few of them now acknowledge that Moscow’s real return to the Middle East in 2015 – when it entered Syria - was due to events in Ukraine.

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Soldiers of a Russian military convoy and their US counterparts exchange greetings as their patrol routes intersect near close to the border with Turkey, on October 8, 2022.

After the Minsk-II Agreement, which sought to calm tensions over east Ukraine, the Kremlin felt able to intervene in the civil war in Syria, to prove its military muscle on the international stage. It used the strength of battle-hardened mercenaries including Wagner paramilitaries that fought in the Ukrainian Donbas region in 2014.

Syria let the Kremlin play the role of ‘returning power’. It has let Moscow intensify contacts with key regional and extra-regional actors in an unprecedented way, play on the tensions of traditional allies, and intervene in other crises by expanding economic activity, for example, in Iraqi Kurdistan or Lebanon.

After the Minsk-II Agreement on east Ukraine, Russia felt able to intervene in Syria's civil war, to prove its military muscle on the international stage

In 2020, this was tested. An oil crisis triggered by Moscow amid the Covid-19 pandemic dispelled the myth that it had been pursuing a calibrated and calculated foreign and economic policy. Acting on the advice of state-owned oil firms, Russia refused to extend the OPEC-plus deal amid a drop in oil demand caused by Covid.

Moscow's oil U-turn

This incurred the wrath of Riyadh, which declared its readiness to increase oil output and offer discounts to European and Asian customers, pushing Russia's flagship Urals Crude down to price lows not seen since 1998, when Boris Yeltsin oversaw the devaluation of the rouble. As such, Moscow incurred far greater losses than it would have done had it extended the agreement and signed up to the oil cartel's plans.

Saudi Arabia had proposed maintaining price stability by removing 300,000 barrels of oil from the daily global market and saw no good reason why Russia should not agree.

Riyadh declared its readiness to increase production and offer discounts, which pushed Russia's Urals crude price down to its lowest level since 1998. Russia relented.

The suspicion was that Russia' leadership felt it had gathered enough steam to make OPEC members curb their own oil production unilaterally, which in turn would squeeze out US shale producers, who it felt had taken on too much debt.

Russia relented, signed up to the cut, and the situation resolved itself, allowing OPEC+ to retain its handle on world oil markets and the Saudis to continue their balancing act between the Washington and Moscow. Meanwhile, US overtures to cartel members to up production and dampen global prices were rebuffed.

Delusions of grandeur

In 2022, relying on erroneous intelligence data and false reports on the combat readiness of its armed forces, the Kremlin once again overestimated its capabilities and launched an asymmetric unconventional war in Ukraine, which quickly degenerated into positional battles.

Although Moscow is now trying to demonstrate the firmness of its former positions in both the region and the world, this protracted war is - to put it mildly - affecting the capabilities of Russia's military and diplomats, with the latter finding it hard to match the verbal grandstanding with the heavy losses on the battlefield.

The Kremlin still conducts its foreign policy in the format of a special operation, like the purchase of kamikaze drones from Iran, but a year on from the invasion, the world is clearer about the effectiveness and influence of such power diplomacy.

If, during the wars in Syria and Libya, Russian diplomats played second fiddle to military power, the war in Ukraine has only made things more difficult for them, and given that Russia's backbone is comprised of its 'hard power' capabilities, the chance of traditional diplomacy to have an effect will remain low.

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Two soldiers patrol the area as the first anniversary of the war between Russia and Ukraine nears in Irpin, Ukraine on February 22, 2023.

The Arab world has not yet changed its fundamental approach to Russia, partly due to the role of the US in the region, and partly due to the need to diversify contacts. That said, Arab leaders are watching the war closely, and the outcome of the Kremlin's military campaign will undoubtedly affect the strength of Arab-Russia ties.

Talking the talk

Russian-Chinese relations can sometimes be viewed through a rose-coloured lens in Russia itself, despite a recent history of unexpected Russian military statements at bilateral events in China.

For example, it was at a Chinese forum that Moscow first "disclosed information" about the alleged involvement of US Poseidon-8 patrol aircraft in a drone strike on a Russian airbase in Syria. Likewise, it was in China that Russia admitted that it had underestimated the capabilities of the American anti-missile system.

The Arab world has not yet changed its fundamental approach to Russia, but is watching the war closely… The outcome of the Kremlin's military campaign will undoubtedly affect the strength of Arab-Russia ties.

Moscow's talk of the perceived US threat is music to Chinese ears and is drawn from a well-used Russian playlist. However, China also has no illusions about its interaction with Russia. It is obvious that Beijing does not consider Moscow an ally.

As Russia expert Alexander Khramchikhin notes, Russian diplomats constantly mention "Russia and China" together as potential targets of aggressive Western actions, but Chinese diplomats almost never do the same. Instead, they tend to accuse the West of aggressive policies aimed at China alone.

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Soldiers and military observers from 14 countries, including Russia, China, India and Azerbaijan are participating in the Vostok-2022 military exercise.

In terms of diplomats' public pronouncements, they say that while Russia and China will not bow to external pressure from third parties, nor are their relations intended to be directed against any third party. This appears to be a reassurance to the US, perhaps given the increase in Sino-Russian military cooperation.

A pragmatic alliance

There are also signs that China is using its relationship with Russia to rattle regional sabres. In what may prove to be revealing, Beijing has twice turned bilateral naval exercises with Russia to its political advantage.

Conducted since 2012, the manoeuvres are held alternately in Chinese then Russian waters, but in 2016 and 2022, Chinese military planners allocated the Southern Fleet zone in the South China Sea. The implication, not lost on anyone, was that Moscow supported China in its numerous territorial disputes with neighbours in that region.

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Photo taken on Nov. 9, 2022 shows the JF-17 Thunder fighter aircraft, a two-seater combat trainer, at the Airshow China in Zhuhai, Guangdong province, China.

In the same vein, joint patrols by Russian and Chinese bombers over the Sea of Japan and the East China Sea make little military sense and confer no obvious benefit to Moscow, but are heavy on political symbolism for China's leadership.

China has used its relations with Russia to rattle sabres in the South China Sea, the implication of naval manoeuvres being that Moscow supports Beijing in its territorial disputes.

Regarding arms sale between the pair, reports of significant Chinese shipments to Russia should be greeted with scepticism. Likewise, Russia's purchases are not in sensitive defence technology but rather items such as Chinese body armour and reconnaissance drones that are openly traded on the internet.

All of this underscores Russia's subordinate position to China, especially given the pressures it faces from war in Ukraine and the international sanctions imposed, which has already forced a reorientation of Russian Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) toward China. In the short-term at least, the centrality of China in the pair's relationship is only likely to intensify.

All eyes on Riyadh

Russians feel that China is gradually replacing the US as the major international power broker and knows that Washington has sullied, at least temporarily, its relations with Saudi Arabia and other states in the region.

Chinese President Xi Jinping's recent visit to Riyadh shows that Russia and China are developing a parallel non-Western 'global South' - the main current in contemporary international relations.

There is reason to suspect that these views, elucidated by commentators such as Prof Sergey Kuzyanin at the National Research University Higher School of Economics, are shared in the Kremlin, given that his analysis was posted to the website of the official journal of the Russian Foreign Ministry.

Russian officials see that while China expands its economic cooperation with Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Middle East, Moscow's opportunity lies in drawing attention to security issues and advancing its political agenda in the region.

In this file photo taken on February 04, 2022 Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and Chinese President Xi Jinping pose for a photograph during their meeting in Beijing.

Yet few are convinced that Russia and China can effectively act as one.

During the Trump administration, several regional reconciliation processes were begun, but Moscow's role in these has since fallen by the wayside. Indeed, as the initiator of the largest military campaign in modern history, it is not clear what Russia could offer.

Shifting sands of defence

Since its invasion of Ukraine, prospective Russian arms sales in the Middle East are now just as tainted as have been those from Chinese defence manufacturers in recent years. Moreover, there are growing suggestions that Saudi Arabia's gaze has shifted east when it comes to advanced weaponry purchases.

If reports are to be believed, the Saudi Arabian Armed Forces are looking closely at the lightweight JF-17 (or FC-1 Xiaolong) fighter jets, Type 054A guided missile frigates, Type 071 amphibious transport dock ships, the Weishi family of multiple rockets launchers systems, and the HQ-19 and HQ-26 air defence systems. All employ cutting-edge Chinese technology.

In summary, the problem for Russia is global, yet Moscow feels that it is in a global competition for the Middle East and Saudi Arabia in particular, with China and the United States also vying for its attention and money. With Russia's limited current resources and its military quagmire in Ukraine deepening, its reliance on states such as China will only grow.

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