“We Feel Comfortable Back-to-Back”: The Unlikely Comrades Of Trump’s Trade War

“There is no sense of threat from Russia. We feel comfortable back-to-back.” A new deep dive by Bloomberg examining the growing closeness of Russia and China as both face down increased U.S. pressures and sanctions contains some deeply revealing quotes by analysts as well as a high official in the Chinese communist government reacting to Trump’s trade war. 

Russia and China, Bloomberg begins, are currently “as close as at any time in their 400 years of shared history.”

Toasting a $400 billion energy deal in 2014, via WSJ

This is due to a perhaps “forced” and largely externally driven developing reconfiguration of the Eastern hemisphere’s superpowers — for most of their history longtime rivals — which involves, as Bloomberg summarizes:

Chinese investment and energy purchases make it easier for Russia to resist economic pressure over Ukraine; Russian sales of oil, missile defense systems, and jets are changing U.S. calculations in the Pacific by raising the potential cost of any future showdown with China.

Fu Ying, the chairwoman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of China’s National People’s Congress, said while confirming the reality that China and Russia now find themselves in the same trenches: “I just hope that if some people in the U.S. insist on dragging us down the hill into Thucydides’ trap, China will be smart enough not to follow.”

Indeed to step back and review the breadth of Russia-China cooperation over the past couple years alone reveals the full potential “cost” of a US-China conflict, given the ways Russia could easily be pulled in. Fu Ying articulated the increasingly common view from Beijing, that “There is no sense of threat from Russia” and that “We feel comfortable back-to-back.”

And participants in a recent study by the National Bureau of Asian Research, a Seattle-based think tank, actually agree. They were asked whether American policy was at fault for pushing China and Russia into closer cooperation, and alarmingly, as Bloomberg notes: “Some among the 100-plus participants called for Washington to prepare for the worst-case scenario the realignment implies: a two-front war.”

Here’s but a partial list of the way Sino-Russian relations have been transformed in recent years:

  • China is now Russia’s biggest single trade partner.
  • Since 2015 Russia has been China’s top supplier of crude oil, displacing Saudi Arabia. Early this year Russia ramped up its capacity to pipe crude oil to China, to about 600,000 barrels per day, which is about double the prior capability
  • Increased coordination at the U.N. Security Council.
  • Regional coordination in Asia, such as Russia supplying the engines for Chinese-Pakistani fighter jets, resulting in an increasingly worried India which is seeing Russia move into the Chinese orbit instead of being an arbiter in Chinese-Pakistani relations
  • The cooperative “NATO-lite” Shanghai Cooperation Organization.
  • The “bromance” at recent summits between Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, who meet each other with increased regularity.
  • Joint military exercises between the two are now routine.
  • This year Russia supplied China with its most advanced S-400 air defense system as well as Sukhoi SU-35 fighter aircraft
  • Increased willingness on the part of Russia to thwart Washington’s argument that China is a threat to Moscow’s aims in the East.
  • The new “Power of Siberia” natural gas pipeline set to start pumping 38 billion cubic meters (1.3 trillion cubic feet) of natural gas per year to northern China in December 2019. 
  • Increasingly discovering non-conflicting interests: Europe and China “are two independent destinations and two independent routes” for gas and oil, Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak said in an October interview. “We do not see any need to redirect volumes.”
Power of Siberia natural gas pipeline. Gazprom

One observer of Sino-Russian relations and their increased military cooperation, Florence Cahill, recently summarized, “Both Beijing and Moscow are looking to demonstrate that trade wars and sanctions will only push them to develop new alliances.” 

Cahill explained further, “As long as their prevailing worldview is shaped by an animus towards a US-led international order, co-operation on all levels between Moscow and Beijing will likely be more pronounced than competition between them.”

This echoes precisely what President Xi affirmed to Putin  during their last major summit: “Both nations have to oppose unilateralism and trade protectionism, and build a new type of international relations and shared human destiny,” he said. 

It appears the blowback from Trump’s trade war with China will be a hastening in this “new type of relations” between the two superpowers in the East and it may soon reach a point at which the U.S. will have fewer and fewer options, but only to sit back and watch.